The travel bug and what to do about it

It’s a recurring malady. I take a trip and come home. It’s nice to be home. But then I see an ad, watch a movie, flip through my photos, talk to a friend, read a new travel blog, hear a newscast about lower air fares — and I’m off again, at least in my mind.

The planning begins anew, and I find myself putting together itineraries, daydreaming about places, reading up on cultures, sampling recipes — all those things that make planning a trip so much fun.

Invariably, I book another trip.

On the spur of the moment . . .

This is by way of saying that we were recently off again — my husband and I — this time on a short trip, but one that took us — for the briefest of stays — to a place we’ve been wanting to visit for some time now: Havana, Cuba.

It was a last-minute excursion, another “too-good-to-resist” deal, this time for a five-day cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, booked scarcely 30 days in advance.  It took only a glance at each other and a quick nod to make the final arrangements. It’s all about spontaneity, after all, isn’t it?

And this time, that happened, including a low introductory fare offered by Sun Country Airlines for new DFW-Tampa service. After flying with them on this inaugural route, we hope they like DFW as much as we like them; we were pleased by more than just the low fares, and would certainly consider flying with this Minneapolis-based airline to other sunny destinations!

When the details fall easily into place, it seems like destiny.

Details and more details

A visa is required for travel to Cuba, at a fee, of course. Forms stating the purpose of the trip must be filled out in duplicate by each person; approved categories of travel include “Support for the Cuban People” cultural exchange tours.

Last year, it was possible to qualify under a “People to People”category and simply spend time walking the streets of Havana, enchanted by old cars, local rum and cigars, music and dancing, dining out or searching for evidence of Ernest Hemingway.

Not so anymore.

Today, once again, visitors must participate in some sort of organized tour or program, or make arrangements before leaving home for well-choreographed and documented personal encounters with Cuban citizens. Records — including a daily journal — are to be kept for a period of five years, and there are restrictions, both on how and where Americans go and how they spend their money.

Reliable sources say that there is little chance of being checked, but the requirements are in place, and could be enforced. Still, in 2017, more than 600,000 Americans visited this island nation that has been essentially off limits since 1960. And 2018 promises to attract even more Americans, now that’s it’s possible to fly via scheduled airline directly from the United States to Havana.

U.S. government rules pertaining to Cuba travel are fluid. They were altered more than once even as the Obama administration first made it easier, then once again imposed additional restrictions on individual travel. Today it’s still impossible to go as a casual tourist, but it is relatively easy to book a flight or to arrive via cruise ship. American credit cards, with some exceptions, do not work, and currency must be exchanged for the local equivalent of the dollar, the CUC. Cubans still use the Peso, and the dual monetary system can be confusing.

It’s not as easy as crossing the border to either Canada or Mexico. But  the impediments did not dampen my enthusiasm.

Havana — Street Food and Vintage Cars

Planning for the journey could not have been more fun. We made contact with fellow travelers via the internet, and even booked a street food tour with another couple, along with their teenage daughter and Spanish exchange student. What fun to think about “fast food” in Havana!

The trip itinerary includes Key West, a much-loved destination since our days aboard our own cruising yacht. Returning to a well-known old eatery for a leisurely “back home” breakfast, snacking on conch fritters at a familiar beach bar and listening to a local musician at another casual waterside cafe are good enough reason to look forward to a quick stop in a favorite city.

A stroll to the “Southernmost Point” seemed in order to remember the times we previously posed there, looking towards Cuba and anticipating the day we could depart under our own power for the quick crossing. Traversing the 90 miles to dock in Havana would have been easy. Sadly, it was not to be.

This time, Key West was to become the jumping off point to Havana adventure, but with a big ship to take us there.

We were eager to experience it all!

A total of 12 hours in a foreign country might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this trip seemed to offer a perfect sampler — the best possible way to evaluate if, how and when we would return. Or, alternatively, to conclude that a single sip is enough, and then to turn our sights toward other shores and begin planning for other trips. Either way, I knew from the beginning that the trip would hold some special memories and result in plenty of stories to tell.

Read my initial impressions of Cuba in The After Story on Sunday, October 28.

Cruises: An unending buffet of treats

It’s true. There’s a lot of food — and drink — available on the average cruise ship.

But even the cruise lines have lightened up a bit. Gone are the midnight buffets, although there are definitely ways to get food around the clock. Gone are the late night chocolate extravaganzas that were as much a feature of cruises as the welcome aboard champagne towers.

Healthy has come to cruising

Sit down breakfasts in the dining room are as apt to include healthy oatmeal and fresh fruit as Eggs Benedict, corned beef hash and fried potatoes; smoked whitefish and soft boiled eggs in addition to bagels, lox and cream cheese. Waiters still circulate with trays of croissants and pastries, and we hope that never changes!

Ever-present buffets are heavily laden with salads, fish and fruit, including Scandinavian and Mediterranean specialties, in addition to hot entrees. It’s still hard to be sensible with buffet selections, but not as difficult! There are many more choices that reflect the cultural identify of scheduled ports. A relatively new alliance between Australian Chef Curtis Stone and Princess Cruises has led to revamped menu offerings on the line’s 18 ships, as well as new a concept dining venue called “Share,” soon to be available on most of them.

Lighter, but as pretty as ever

It’s an interesting, welcome and delicious departure. Food on cruise ships has always been something to write home about — mostly, in days gone by, for its calorie-rich decadence as much as for the quality and the abundance. Today, the food is different.

It’s beautiful to look at, thoughtfully prepared and presented, regionally appropriate — and it’s lighter, fresher and healthier. An extensive array of vegetarian offerings reflects a changing culture and the global trend toward health consciousness and fitness.

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Desserts are often fresh fruit, lighter sorbets, cheese trays and sugar-free cakes. But the Baked Alaska parade by waiters is still a feature! And, although the variety, preparation and presentation are still worth celebrating, food service as practiced by the cruise lines has achieved something much more notable.

It is entirely possible to return from an extended cruise vacation not a single pound heavier, and at least as healthy as when you stepped aboard, with no hint of deprivation.

A newly enriching travel experience

Food is a part of the experience and, in the words of Chef Stone: “When good food and travel brings people closer together, you experience the world in a whole new way.”

On a recent Eastern Caribbean sailing with Princess Cruise Lines, our party was delighted by the variety of dishes, the range of flavors, and the visual appeal of every plate brought to our table. We were equally entranced with the buffets — Danish smorgasbord for breakfast; shrimp salad and fresh fruit for lunch. Lighter custards, along with tempting fresh-baked cookies, for an afternoon pick-me-up.

The food on board was so good, in fact, that I sought out some Curtis Stone recipes upon returning home. You can try some too, if you’d like!

 

Bucket lists and traveling plans

Do you have a bucket list?

I have to confess that, until now, I never did. But I have been making one of late.

I have also been thinking about the next trip. A lot. And part of the thinking involves talking to friends and family about sharing it, a sort of old-friends-and-distant-relatives-reunion that would have our gang of crones and curmudgeons laughing it up and proving to younger people how the old folks can still “party on.”

The idea has been brewing for a while now. I’ve been poring over itineraries, and researching cruise lines, thinking about possible dates and ports, and wondering whether a summer or winter getaway would be better for most of the people I could hope to have join us.

And then it dawned on me. It’s not necessarily a one-time opportunity.

So, in case you’re wondering exactly where this is leading —

For me,  it’s leading to the Panama Canal — a journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I hope that a core group of compatible travelers joins in. It takes more time and energy than I seem to have to add “trip organizer” to my resume at this point, but I have put out the word.

The Map on the Wall

There was a time, several decades ago, when a group of young friends thought it fun to throw a dart at a wall map, and take off for a long weekend of sightseeing. Our group tasted several European capitals in that manner, motored through beautiful countryside along back roads, spent as little as possible because we had little, and savored every minute of every experience.

Later my husband and I traveled with other couples and other groups, on planned vacations, for spur-of-the-moment getaways, and sometimes just because we had free time and the urge to be gone.

I recently looked at another wall map and realized that, even though I have visited a fair number of cities, states and countries during my time on the home planet, there are still a huge number of places to explore.

Travel has become more complicated and much more expensive. As the world shrinks, its differences become less obvious — or more exaggerated, depending on your point of view. Personal devices allow popular music and movies to be delivered anywhere at any time, and travelers do not find it necessary to interact with one another or with strangers.

It’s a shame. So, I’m embarking on a modern crusade of sorts.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t eager to go somewhere new, taste new foods, meet new people and view life from a different perspective. Time, responsibility, finances and “respectability” may have gotten in the way along the way. I think it’s now time to rectify all that. The Panama Canal trip is not the result of throwing a dart and finding a way to get there.

It is more of a response to a fascination with the still-unfolding history of the canal. I’m really looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about “the big ditch.”

But I’m not giving up dart-throwing either.

Flickr photos of Panama Canal by LyunGateley (2004) and Meghan Jones (2010 – evening shot)