Cuba Soon to Be Easier to Visit

Restoration of diplomatic relations good news for travelers.

CubaUSflagsThe Obama Administration’s long-overdue removal of Cuba from America’s terrorist list is great news for travelers. The nation at our doorstep, with which the US severed ties more than half a century ago at the apex of anti-Communist fever, is a wonderful vibrant place to visit.  Do so now. Both countries’ embassies will open on July 20, so get those travel plans going.

Independent travel is possible, but for convenience, check out these tour operators that include Cuba programs:

  • Cuba Elite.  Luxury hotels and upmarket private villas, apartments and residences. Who says it’s a hard-line Communist country.
  • Cuba Travel Network. Booking service for hotels and resorts, rental cars, excursions and more geared to Canadians and European who have not been restricted as have US citizens.
  • Cuba Travel Services. It has been dedicated to reuniting families, but with the normalization of relations, it’s format might change.
  • Friendly Planet. Tour operator with long-time presence in Cuba. running fully escorted Cuba tours.
  • Globus. Three Cuba programs are on this major international tour company’s roster.
  • LaTour. New weekend getaway to Havana.
  • National Geographic Expeditions. In addition to local guides, some tours are accompanied by well-known authors and other authorities.
  • Road Scholar. Educational programs for seniors.
  • smarTours. 11-day “Rediscover Cuba” package.
  • USA Cuba Travel. Sells packages to Havana and all-inclusive resorts.

I traveled there with smarTours a couple of months ago, not on their 11-day program but for four days in Havana. IsramWorld’s new weekend getaway is essentially the same program — one night in Miami, three nights in Havana, Cuban visa, guided sightseeing, medical insurance and so on.

Ride the Rails to Mountain Concert Venue

Rio Grande Scenic train to private music site.

RioGrande-logoThis seems to be my summer for country rock and related concerts — first Ricky Skaggs and Gordon Lightfoot in Boulder’s historic Chautauqua Auditorium, and yesterday afternoon in the lovely mountain setting on La Veta Pass, where Mark Chestnutt headlined. The rustic venue is accessible only by Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Even the musicians travel by train — no truck, no tour bus in sight.

Rio Grande train ascends to La Veta Pass.
Rio Grande train ascends to La Veta Pass.
Fir Amphitheater nestled in a mountain meadow. The facility is solar- and wind-powered.
Fir Amphitheater nestled in a mountain meadow. The facility is solar- and wind-powered.

Vintage cars leave Alamosa’s historic downtown depot and travel through the  pancake-flat San Luis Valley past farms, potato warehouses and historic Fort Garland en route to the soaring Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There, at 9,400 feet, the railroad built the Fir Summit Amphitheater, a wind- and solar-powered site in the cusp of a mountain meadow. The audience sits on benches or on folding chairs (their own or rented). Barbecue, beer and soft drinks are for sale.  And yes, so are T-shirts, ball caps and artists’ CDs.

Chuck Pyle opened with melodic ballads, including the ode to Colorado used as the CPR/PBS theme for local programing.
Chuck Pyle opened with melodic ballads, including the ode to Colorado used as the CPR/PBS theme for local programing.
Matt Chesnutt headlined the show with his Texas crowd-pleasing, honky-tonk-heavy program.
Mark Chesnutt headlined the show with his Texas crowd-pleasing, honky-tonk-heavy program.
In this intimate venue, the audience is right up in front of the stage.
In this intimate venue, the audience is right up in front of the stage.

Yesterday Colorado’s mellow Chuck Pyle opened for Texan Matt Chestnutt’s honky-tonk-flavored performance. The sky was blue, the clouds fluffy and non-threatening.  A second performance is scheduled today — part of the Mountain Rails Live 13-concert series over the summer.

The vintage standard-gauge cars come in four classes of service with food and beverage services on board, and the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad also runs a Sunset Dinner Train (five courses) in the valley to Antonito as well as an Excursion Train over the pass to the hamlet of La Veta. Coming up from September 16 to October 10 there are also trains for leaf-peepers and an Oktoberfest trip on October 3. FoMoInfo: 877-726-7245.

Denver Zoo Package + New Giraffe Feature

Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver’s neat seasonal package.

DenverZooGiraffe-signThe Grand Hyatt Denver’s family-oriented new Zoo Safari Package  coincides with the opening of the Denver Zoo’s brand new Giraffe . Two platforms at different heights enable visitors to hand-feed lettuce leaves to the zoo’s four giraffes — the tallest of which is named Dikembe after the Denver Nuggets’ former star player, Dikembe Motumbo.  Zookeepers on-site answer questions and provide tidbits of information about giraffes.

Lucky youngsters get to be the first to hand-feed giraffes at the Denver Zoo's new Giraffe Encounter. Photo: The Denver Channel
Lucky youngsters get to be the first to hand-feed giraffes at the Denver Zoo’s new Giraffe Encounter. Photo: The Denver Channel

The package (from $229 per room) includes an overnight stay in a newly refreshed, spacious accommodation, two adult admission tickets to the zoo (regularly $17 each) and free valet parking in the in the hotel garage in the heart of the Mile High City — not a trivial savings.  A kids’ scavenger hunt challenges them to find favorite animals and then rewards them with a prize from the hotel’s treasure chest. And when families return to the hotel, a dip in the indoor pool awaits. The seasonal package (through September 30) is only available online or by calling 800-233-1234.

New Utah National Parks Audio App

Audio-guides to five great parks in one scenic state.

JustAhead-logo.pngThe Society of American Travel Writers is holding its 2015 convention in downtown Las Vegas — nostalgic and de-glitzified compared with The Strip. Having grown up in Connecticut, long road trips don’t come easily to me, but still my husband and I thought we’d take a leisurely road trip to Las Vegas, visiting some or most of Utah’s five national parks coming and/or going.

UtahNP-map

I’ve now learned of something we’ll need to take along: “Driving Among Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ National Parks”, a new GPS-prompted mobile app/audio tour guide from Just Ahead Guides that cover Arches, Canyonlands Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion. We’ve been to Moab and its two nearby parks (Arches, Canyonlands) any number of times, summer and winter. Still, more insights are always welcome. But neither one of us has more than driven through Zion or Bryce, and neither of us has been to Capitol Reef.

The good part  is that Just Ahead guides work without an Internet connection or cell phone service. Drivers or passengers simply download the app, turn it on and enjoy what the company calls “a richly narrated tour.”  Just Ahead utilizes GPS technology to identify exactly where drivers are on the road in order to deliver stories and maps relevant to the exact location. Each app points out not-to-miss features as well as helpful driving directions.

The Just Ahead app is a free download available either through the Apple App Store (iPhone) or via Google Play (Android), and each destination guide is available as an in-app purchase. Guides range from $4.99 to $9.99 and include a free trial and free guide updates.

Allegiant: Low Fare + No Air

Allegiant passengers forced onto aircraft wing upon landing in Boise.

AllegiantAirLogoWho ever expects that an airline ticket will include unbreathable cabin “air”? Some passengers on Allegiant Air that landed in Boise the other day, who ended up standing on the aircraft wing, found out that it could happen. According to a report in the Idaho Statesman, “Passengers were forced to escape onto the wing of an Allegiant Air plane after fumes leaked into the cabin on landing. The worrying incident happened after Flight 330 had landed at Boise Airport in Idaho, U.S. from Los Angeles.”

Passengers waiting on the wing of a just-landed Allegiant Air plane after foul cabin air forced them to except. It happened in Boise. Good that it wasn't winter or windy. The carrier reportedly compensated them with $50 for the inconvenience.
Passengers waiting on the wing of a just-landed Allegiant Air plane after foul cabin air forced them to except. It happened in Boise. Good that it wasn’t winter or windy. The carrier reportedly compensated them with $50 for the inconvenience.

Passengers reported smoke and a smell of fuel in the cabin the plane taxied to the gate in Boise. Some of the 163 passengers escaped onto the wing after fumes leaked into the cabin upon landing. Even after the emergency evacuation, some were dismayed at the way the airline dealt with the situation. “Passengers Criticize Allegiant Air’s Handling of the Evacuation.”

This follows another Allegiant Air emergency landing in Clearwater, Florida just a week earlier, when minutes after takeoff, the crew reported smoke in the cabin and was forced to return to the airport. Four passengers and one flight attendant reportedly sustained injuries that time.

According to a press released issued by BerlinRosen Public Affairs on behalf of a client that I can’t seem to identify, “Allegiant pilots have been raising concerns about the airline’s bare-minimum approach that’s infused all aspect of its operation. Earlier this year, Teamsters Aviation Mechanics Coalition (TAMC) released a report that shows the airline experiences a high rate of air returns and diversions due to mechanical issues. Between January and March of 2015 alone, there were 38 new instances of fixable mechanical issues such as engines failing, pressurization problems, smoke in the cockpit, radar being inoperable and anti-ice devices on windshields failing.” T

his follows another Allegiant Air emergency landing in Clearwater, Florida, just a week earlier, when minutes after takeoff, the crew reported smoke in the cabin and was forced to return to the airport in Clearwater. Four passengers and one flight attendant sustained injuries.  This is a result of what I think of as the Walmartization of America, turning us into a nation of bottom-feeders.  Cut costs to the bone, no matter what the possible consequences.  It is fortunate that there were only survivable injuries in the Clearwater incident and none reported in Boise, where BTW, Allegiant reportedly gave each affected passenger a $50 certificate. I wonder how many people will actually use it. I wouldn’t.

Devil’s Thumb Ranch Adds Charging Stations

Tesla and other electric cars can “fuel up” at guest ranch.

DTR-logoDevil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa, known for minimizing its carbon footprint and a commitment to other eco-friendly practices to provide sustainably focused vacation, recreation, spa and dining experiences, is adding two Tesla and one universal electric car charging stations, free to overnight guests and also to day visitors if available.

The Tesla chargers, which the car company provided, take approximately four hours to fully charge a car. A fully charged Tesla gets an average of 300 miles before it needs to be plugged in again.  The Universal Charger, which is being provided by the State of Colorado, is expected to be available later in June and will be able to accommodate Chevrolet, Honda and other electric vehicles. It takes approximately four to eight hours to fully charge a car. Both are offered free-of-charge to overnight guests and guests on a space-available  basis to day guests.

Outlet for Tesla charging station.
Outlet for Tesla charging station.

Dave Houston, the ranch’s director of facilities says,  “While still a small segment of car owners, we want to remain as accessible to the traveling public as possible and that includes offering alternate energy resources for them to use.” Applause to this Tabernash, Colorado, ranch resort for being so forward-thinking.

Opening Date Set for Westin at Denver Airport

Hotel to open before Thanksgiving rush.

DIA-logoDenver International Airport — the nation’s 5th busiest and the world’s 15th busiest — has operated for more than two decades without a hotel connected to the terminal. The Westin Denver International Airport, which is set to open on November 19, will change that.

The 14-story hotel with 519 guest rooms will serve both business and leisure travelers and locals when the 82,000- square-foot open-air public plaza is completed. It is expected to  become Denver’s newest venue for entertainment and will create a community connection between the airport and downtown Denver. When airport rail service begins, reaching it will be swift and easy.

The hotel's reception area provides a reflected view of the terminal's signature tented roof.
The hotel’s reception area provides a reflected view of the terminal’s signature tented roof.

A couple of months ago, I took a fascinating hardhat tour of the architecturally inventive hotel. It is designed with walls of towering, shimmering glass offering view of DIA flight paths and both the mountains and the plains. Building upon imagery of flight and aviation, the sleek hotel resembles a bird with its wings extended as it hovers above the public plaza, framing and accenting the signature tents of the Jeppesen Terminal roof.

Spring Splendor in Rocky Mountain Natl. Park

Deep snow, broad views & a splendid wildlife day.

015My most recent post was about Rocky Mountain National Park’s centennial. Today, we took two visitors — one from Switzerland, one from Malaysia — to see the newly plowed Trail Ridge Road. As always shortly after the road opens for the season, vehicles travel between high snow walls on parts of the road and on other parts with jaw-dropping views of snow-covered peaks. Today provided an exceptional wildlife experience too: elk, bighorn sheep, a marmot and even an owl.

There is still plenty of snow at the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet above sea level.
There is still plenty of snow at the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet above sea level.
It is often possible to see elk in Horseshoe Park. Today was no exception.
It is often possible to see elk in Horseshoe Park. Today was no exception.
Two weeks ago, we were thrilled to see bighorn sheep on a slope high above. Today, they were close to the road.
Two weeks ago, we were thrilled to see bighorn sheep on a slope high above. Today, they were close to the road.
Bighorn sheep at Sheep Lakes.
Bighorn sheep at Sheep Lakes — and a small rodent of some sort (prairie dog, perhaps) paying minimal attention.
The marmot at the Forest Canyon Overlook is hard to spot, but trust me -- it's there.
The marmot at the Forest Canyon Overlook is hard to spot, but trust me — it’s there.
Owl up in a pine tree, also right at the edge of the road.
Owl up in a pine tree, also right at the edge of the road.

Endless Winter in Colorado’s Iconic National Park

Trail Ridge Road just opened for the park’s centennial summer.

Logo_FINAL_BLUE_4CP_NEWTrail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park between Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west is one of the country’s iconic drives. Cresting at an elevation of 12,183 feet, the road is usually plowed out by Memorial Day. But not this year — the park’s centennial — when high road opened today but with probably night-time closures for a while.  The snows have been coming, and the plows and shovelers are still at it.

May 29, 2015, on Trail Ridge Road.
May 29, 2015, on Trail Ridge Road.
Still all sorts of snow at the Alpine Visitor Center.
Still all sorts of snow at the Alpine Visitor Center.
Aerial view of Trail Ridge Road today.
Looking down at Trail Ridge Road today.

The park’s centennial celebrations kicked off in low gear last fall, were confined largely to historic exhibits, workshops, presentations and such that lent themselves to indoor venues.  An RMNP exhibit  will continue for some indefinite time at the History Colorado Center in Denver, the state’s wonderful historic museum.

Rocky Mountain National Park artifacts and memorabilia.
Rocky Mountain National Park artifacts and memorabilia.

With the approach of summer, summer events are coming into view.  A group of Model T enthusiasts plans to car-camp in August with old-style canvas tents; the Colorado Mountain Club is organizing a series of hikes, climbs and wildflower walks, and the Rocky Mountain Conservancy has a passel of commemorative activities planned too, including a John Denver tribute concert by local musician Brad Fitch in Estes Park on July 25 and in Grand Lake on August 1.

Click here FoMoInfo on Centennial celebrations, which conclude with a rededication of the park at Glacier Basin Campground on September 4, the Friday before Labor Day. I plan to be there. You too?

More Protected Land at Rio Grande Headwaters

Large ranch added to Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust achievements.

RioGrandeLandTrust-logoOne of Colorado’s claims to fame is as the birthplace of three major American rivers: the Colorado, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande. The latter generally makes news in the context of US-Mexico border issues, but few people realize that its headwaters are deep in the Colorado Rockies. The Rio Grande Land Trust has been quietly assembling acreage to protect this precious area.

RioGrandeLandTrust-scenic1.jpg

The Del Norte-based Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) has announced the conservation of 1,080 acres of the iconic 4UR Ranch,  bringing RiGHT’s Rio Grande Initiative to the original goal of protecting 25,000 acres of private lands along the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

RioGrandeLandTrust-scenic2
As with all such never-easy conservation projects, many players participated. So here’s a shout-out to those that RiGHT has thanked: “the generosity of the Leavell and Brown families, who donated a substantial portion of the value. Phase II of the 4UR Ranch conservation project received funding from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the Gates Family Foundation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), CPW’s San Luis Valley Habitat Partnership Program, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. RiGHT especially appreciates the help of the staff of these funding agencies and the Boards who chose to support this effort, all of whom made this exceptional conservation project possible.”

This is not of direct and specific touristic interest, but the conservation of open land, traditional uses and wonderful views or ranchland and mountains is part of the big picture that makes Colorado the beautiful and visit-worthy state that it is.

Award-winning travel blog. Colorado-based Claire Walter shares travel news and first-hand destination information from around the corner, around the country and around the world.