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.

Remembering when the earth rumbled

Botanica-Florida 2009 early 118 - Copy

STS 133.

I’ve been taking trips down memory lane — I don’t know why exactly. But planning new trips (which I do, it seems, every winter as the walls start closing in) somehow just naturally calls to mind previous adventures.

STS 133. The 133rd flight of a U.S. space shuttle. The last voyage of Discovery. The 35th mission to the International Space Station.

They called it an “Express.” As if others made interim stops! That makes me smile.

The backstory . . .

For as long as I can remember, I have looked up at the sky and dreamed of traveling into space. Spacecraft and rocket launches never fail to mesmerize and excite.

In February 2009, we were traveling south on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway; we had hoped to be near enough to Cape Canaveral to witness a shuttle launch, but there were weather delays. Without a firm target date, we made no firm plans.

In early March, though, somewhere near Titusville, Florida, we witnessed the liftoff of a Jupiter 2 rocket, “at 2248 from Pad 17 Bravo,” according to the U.S. Coast Guard in a security zone broadcast alert to boaters that evening. We saw the flash on the horizon, bright and perfect, as we lay at anchor.Bahamas-March-April 2009 180

In mid-March of that year,  we were docked at Port Lucaya in the Bahamas. After weeks of continuing delays, STS 119, a flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, was finally scheduled for launch at 7:43 p.m. the evening of March 15. From 60 or so miles away, we saw the light in the night sky that signaled another perfect launch.  A cheer went up from the mostly American crowd, from vessel decks throughout the marina, and we watched until the glowing cloud of light dissipated.

The real meaning of “earth-shaking”

Not quite two years later, the launch was scheduled for 4:50 p.m. Thursday, February 24, 2011. There was a 10-minute window; official NASA records put liftoff at 4:53:24. That’s pretty close to on time.

There were other boats all around; all gathered at a perfect vantage point to witness one of the last shuttle launches of the American space program. It felt like a block party. The day was calm and beautiful, and we had a “front-row seat” in a small cove a few miles east of Cape Canaveral with a clear view of Merritt Island and the Cape just beyond. We could see the busloads of tourists heading for viewing sites. The air of anticipation was palpable. Radios blasted the latest news as the minutes ticked down.

I remember the anticipation. I remember seeing the smoke; then hearing the sound; then FEELING the blast; in that order. Yes, even though we were cushioned by the water, we felt the earth tremble beneath us.

And then the shiny, slender white rocket rose steadily into the upside down bowl of blue sky to begin its journey into space.

Raw power of that sort is hard to describe. Words don’t do it justice.

Launch Day at Canaveral 058 (2)A moment in time

I remember the cheers. No one dared speak. Even breathing was difficult. All eyes, trained on binoculars or straining to focus through a camera lens, followed the arcing path over the Atlantic until the rockets and the shuttle were just a pinpoint with a trail of white that drifted back towards the home planet. It was gone in only minutes, but witnessing that launch was an experience not easily forgotten.

History was made that day. Discovery’s story was completed 12 days later, when it returned to Earth at Kennedy Space Center just before noon on March 9. Six men were on board that mission.

Between 1984 and 2011, Discovery flew a total of 39 missions, carried 252 crew members into space, launched the Hubble Telescope and, finally, was retired to the Smithsonian Institution where the public can view it. Discovery was the third of five shuttles built and the first to leave active service. Read more about Discovery’s last mission.

Space Shuttle Endeavor’s final launch was May 16, and Atlantis flew July 8 under the NASA designation STS 135, ending America’s shuttle program after 30 years.

The saga continues

I still look up at the sky. I still dream of traveling into space, although I know that, for me, it is only a dream. But for others .  . . . Let us not forget that the missions continue. The International Space Station orbits our Earth approximately every 90 minutes. You can look up and see it; or you can view your planet as the astronauts see it, in real time.

Note: My husband and I were liveaboard boaters at the time, traveling eastern U.S. waters on an almost three-year epic journey that took us from Florida north to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes, saw us in the Chesapeake and on the Potomac, in the Carolinas and Florida and the Bahamas, ending our journey finally in Mobile, Alabama, on the Gulf Coast. Our adventures on Gypsy Spirit, our 44-foot aft-cabin power vessel, were the stuff of dreams; we occasionally browse our log books to rekindle fond memories of those times.