Category Archives: Cuba

Cuba Getting First Five-Star Hotel

Kempinski to open Havana property.

If you are one who is planning to visit Cuba “before it changes,” you’d better hurry. Even with diplomatic normalization, American companies are not permitted to build in Cuba yet, so the Swiss hotel firm, Kempinski, will be the first with a five-star property in the island nation’s capital. The will reportedly be Cuba’s first true five-star hotel, described as “one of the country’s first significant steps into the modern Western world. ”

The hotel will be housed within the historic Manzana de Gómez building, a grandiose five-story structure dating to 1890. It was Cuba’s first European-style shopping and business center with more than 500 stores, business offices, law firms and notaries. It is located at the heart of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), that portion of Cuba’s capital city that was founded in 1519 and is now a a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Flanked by Bacardi rum’s art deco bell tower and the National Museum of Fine Arts, Manzana de Gómez is part of the city’s lifeblood. It overlooks the Capitol, the Great Theater of Havana and El Floridita, the infamous fish restaurant and cocktail bar that Ernest Hemingway frequented.

Exterior restored to five-star elegance.

Hotel guests can easily walk to Old Havana’s main interconnecting artery Calle Obispo (which is packed with art galleries, shops and music bars). The monumental Castillo del Morro lighthouse, which has guarded the entrance to Havana Bay since 1589, is a 10-minute drive.

Rooms are planned to exude contemporary elegance in tropical white.

The press release about the hotel raves that “inside the restored neoclassical building, Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski Manzana La Habana will offer 246 rooms and suites. Ranging in size from about 430 to 1,615 square feet, each offers a crisp contemporary white color palette with vaulted ceilings, large French windows, and fun pops of bright colors that feel inherently Cuban. Amenities include an approximately 10,765-square-foot Swiss Resense spa, three restaurants, a lobby bar, a rooftop terrace with a swimming pool, and free internet in every room—which is huge considering Cuba is one of the least digitally connected countries in the world. Naturally, there is also an in-house cigar lounge.”

The hotel appears to be targeting a late 2017 opening.

Boat Sharing Promoted for Travel to Cuba

Boatsetter provides perivate option for travel to Cuba.

boatsetter-logoWhen Ernest Hemingway traveled between Key West and Cuba, he often did so on “Pilar,” his 1934 speed boat. It was described in a 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine as having been “marketed by Wheeler as a 38-foot, twin-cabin ‘Playmate’ with a 70-hp Chrysler Crown gasoline engine reportedly capable of generating a cruise speed of 8 knots and a top speed of 16 knots. But Hemingway had specified some addendums (and would later specify a few more), thereby making her one of the first—if not the first—custom sportfishing vessels of the 20th century.”

Now Boatsetter, likened to “the Air BnB of boating,” is promoting boatsharing as a way for visitors to reach Cuba in the Hemingway way.   (Sorry. Couldn’t resist. ) Who would have thought it?  The company offers a knowledgeable team from the boat rental community that includes boat owners and captains who know the southern waterways, as well as what needs to be done before setting sail for the island so newly accessible to American travelers. Boatsetter will walk customers through the process of filling out the right paperwork to finding the right yacht with boat rental options available in Miami and Key West.

Boatsetter Cuba is an international peer-to-peer boat rental service headquartered in Aventura, Florida. Currently, the company boasts the world’s largest network of U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captains and has a fleet of over 4,000 boats worldwide. Boatsetter provides safe and fun boat rentals, including “world-class insurance, 24-hour free cancellations, access to our network of certified captains and worldwide fleet of privately-owned boat rentals of all sizes and styles.”

It’s not a bargain way to travel, of course, but it certainly is a memorable way to reach Cuba. FoMoInfo: 305-570-4768.

Cuba Flights About to Take Off

JetBlue is the first with regular flights.

JetBllueWith the normalization of U.S. -Cuba relations, airlines are gearing up to start scheduled (i.e., non-charter) service. JetBlue is the first to pull away from the gate with one-way fares from $99 beginning August 1 flying between Fort Lauderdale airport (FLL) in Florida and Cuba’s Santa Clara (SNU) . The carrier has been servicing Cuba with charter flights. If all goes according to plans, Camagüey and Holguín flights are to be added in November, eventually also Havana flights are to begin.

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.

State Department Warnings: What’s in a Name?

Decoding US government warnings to international travelers from the US

Unrest and violence cause travelers — especially Americans — to reconsider international travel plans. Ten percent more Americans visited India in 2007 than in 2006, but with the recent terrorist attacks in Mombai (aka, Bombay) in which six Americans were among the 170 people killed, that number is likely to drop. Ditto travel to Greece, which welcomed 12 percent more international visitors in ’07 than in ’06 but has recently been plagued by riots in Athens, the capital, and concurrent strikes by workers at the Acropolis and other popular tourist sites.

Violence, of course, is volatile, and the US State Department doesn’t always get it right. There were periods when visitors shunned London (Irish Republican Army attacks), central Europe (in the era of Germany‘s Bader-Meinhoff faction and other far-left terrorist groups) and parts of Spain (Basque separatist violence), as well as countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America when when wars, political unrest, assorted insurgencies and government policies made them unwelcoming. Consider that under Augusto Pinochet, Chile was not a desirable or safe tourist destination, now it is, while up north, not too many Americans visit Venezuela under Hugo Chavez or neighboring Colombia with its drug cartel-related violence. And US citizens have been forbidden or discouraged from visiting Cuba for nearly half-a-century, yet those who have visited report Cubans to be warm and welcoming — and their visits to be incident-free.

The US State Department updates and issues travel advisories ranging from subtle warnings to outright recommendations to stay away from certain nations. When deciding on your risk-tolerance in light of these advisories, consider that the US government has also been telling air travelers in this country that the threat level is at “orange” just about since the color coding system was unveiled in 2002. That annoying Department of Homeland Security recording has played so incessantly since then that it has become just so much airport background noise — and I don’t think too many travelers pay much attention.

So it is with some skepticism that I share the State Department’s definition of its country-specific evaluations for Americans contemplating travel abroad. These are updated on the department’s website. Country-by-country evaluations are useful because they are not as simplistic as the “Department of Homeland Security’s terror alert is orange” that we hear at airports.

  • Travel Advisory – This is the general category of perceived threats that could affect Americans traveling to specific regions, countries or cities.
  • Travel Alert – A threat that the State Department believes is of relatively short-term duration, including upcoming elections, hurricane or typhoon threat or other short-term situation.
  • Travel Warning – Chronic violence, including such obvious destinations as Afghanistan and Iraq, where the situation so inflammatory and “potentially dangerous for Americans that we want them to know about that,” Michelle Bernier-Toth, director of the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management, recently told Gannett News Services. Well, duh!

Bernier-Toth also explained that assessing situations is a “very collaborative process between our embassy and consulate, between various bureaus and offices within the department. . . Sometimes we tell people to consider the risk of traveling, sometimes we say you should defer nonessential travel or all but essential travel and sometimes we just recommend you don’t go. The best way to figure out what kind of danger you’re facing is to read the specifics of the alert.”

I am scheduled to visit Egypt with the Society of American Travel Writers in February, and have read the State Department’s assessment, I’m willing to accept the risk

Havana, Here We Come — Hopefully

A very few years ago, a friend who travels extensively in developing countries invited me to join her on a trip to Cuba. I was tempted, but the Bush administration’s punitive attitude toward tourism to the Latin American outlyer to the “axis of evil” had me concerned. American tourists could be fined heavily ($15,000 sticks in my mind) upon their return to the US. There were, of course, ways around this charade which seemed to me mostly an effort to appease the hardliners among Miami’s Cuban-American citizens, because after all, Bush’s brother Jeb is Florida’s governor. My friend went via Cancun, Mexico. Cuba did not stamp her passport. She had a fabulous experience. And of course, I regretted chickening out.

Now, there is hope on the horizon for normal travel to Cuba with the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress and with Cuban President Fidel Castro showing fraility after six-and-a-half decades in power. Things finally appear to be shifting. HR 654, submitted on January 24 by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel, states, “The President shall not regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incident to such travel.” It has reportedly gained bipartisan co-sponsorship from more than 60 Representatives, and a similar bill is to be considered by the Senate at the end of this month.

The limited travel currently permitted requires US travel agents booking trips to Cuba, to have a license as a “Travel Service Provider” — and that seems to go just to organizers of medical or religious travel and trips for various other approved purposes. The new legislation, if approved, would also permit the use of US credit cards for travel to Cuba. It does not, however, lift the trade embargo, so don’t expect to see Cuban cigars at US tobacconists in the near future.

America’s obsessive blacklisting, blackballing and isolation of Cuba is a case of this country going it largely alone. Many countries (and most who count, economically) already have normal relations with Cuba. Their citizens happily vacation at resorts along the Cuban coast. American citizens who wish to do so take the risk of punishment by our government. Americans who want to travel there do so via Mexico, as my friend did, Canada or even Spain. The US public does seem to seems ready to resume normal relations with our neighbor to the south, with some two-thirds of Americans in favor of a major policy shift, according to CNN, Gallup and Associated Press polls. About half of all Cuban-Americans, painted by politicians with an agenda of continued isolation of Cuba, reportedly support ending all travel restrictions.

The Travel Committee on Cuba (TICC), a group of travel agents, lusts after the opening of a new tropical destination so close to American shores. No longer totally put off by government accusations of being unpatriotic, travel professionals now are talking about “direct contact between people,” “understanding” and “goodwill.” Most In truth, hordes of American tourists carrying American plastic and American greenbacks do more to “open” a country than any political posturing about “anti-Communism.” Vietnam and even China prove that tourist and trade dollars are the most effective way of “opening” a country considered to be hostile.