Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: December 2015

Revolution or evolution? Change comes to Cuba

It’s been one year since the United States and Cuba announced they were beginning the process of normalizing relations signaling an end to the decades of political estrangement and isolation. The far reaching  effects of that important first step are now being felt in many ways at ground level in Cuba and the very near future only holds yet more waves of change that will remake the island national I’ve come to know and enjoy.

It’s hard to pick up a newspaper, see a newscast or read online news feeds lately without seeing or hearing of another relaxation of trade or travel embargos against Cuba with the latest this week being the agreement to  agree to allow up to 110 flights a day between the U.S. & Cuba as noted in this Globe & Mail article.  That increased flow of American travellers could top 10 million per year according to this article and will be felt by both European and Canadian vacationers who’ve long made up the majority of tourism arrivals to the island. Spanish hotel & resort chains have long held a have long held an inside track and are expanding their hospitality operations with new resorts and hotels in major tourism centers such as Varadero, Holguin and Cayo Santa Maria off Cuba’s north shore. Despite this gearing up of development to meet the impending flood of travellers and a long-standing relationship between Canada and Cuba Canadian firms are noticeably absent.

All these positive developments however haven’t meant that the warming of relations between Cuba & the U.S. have thawed every thorny political issue as there are a number of outstanding obstacles to overcome. Among them are Cuba’s objection to the continued funding of was the continued broadcasting of Radio Marti and TV Marti by the US. These Miami based stations are funded by the US government and are transmitted to Cuba with programming broadcast in Spanish, which Raul Castro has said in a speech is an attack on the country’s sovereignty. Also unresolved is the matter of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, a 45 square mile enclave on the countries south eastern coast the Americans have occupied since the Spanish-American War of 1898 and still affirm a right do so according to a signed 1903 treaty. The base has infamously been the site of post 9/11 terrorism detainees and despite an Obama administration pledge to close it down it remains open much to the consternation of the Castro government. The Unites States also actively encourages Cuban trained doctors to defect, an ongoing irritant to the Cuban government as reported recently in the New York Times article.

These high-level political matters however are unlikely to derail the march toward the development of a closer relationship between Cuba & the U.S. and the Cuba as has existed for the past 50+ years will change as a result. The obsessively maintained 1950’s American cars with undersized Lada engines will become a thing of the past.

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Change is inevitable but the challenge for Cuba is to move forward while maintaining its unique attributes such as one of the highest literacy rates in the world at 99.7% along with a social safety net of universal education and medicine. More than once I’ve met an exceptionally educated waiter at a beachfront all-inclusive resort and heard how the tourism industry paid far better than their chosen profession. There is a real genuineness to the Cuban people and it’s this intangible Cuban identity I hope isn’t lost in the race forward as its as warm as the tropical sun.

Ernest Hemingway was another traveller who became very fond of Cuba and in his Pulitzer and Nobel prize winning novel The Old Man and the Sea chronicled the struggle of  Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who after an exhausting three day fight lands a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream but sees the fish devoured on the homeward journey by marauding sharks until all that is left at landfall is a skeletal carcass. In many ways Cuba has chartered a different course but it remains to be seen whether she returns unscathed or loses much of who she navigating the tricky waters of the transition.

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If ever there was a time to visit Cuba I would recommend it be sooner rather than later before the effects of all the recent changes now underway alter the unique aspects of the country.

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Autentica Cuba by Autentica Cuba is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Hotel review: Sandman Calgary City Center

Finding myself in need of a Calgary hotel for one night while attending a company Christmas party co-workers recommended the Sandman Calgary City Center as an inexpensive downtown hotel and was happy I heeded their advice as my short stay was more than okay.

I’ll admit that a low travel consultant rate was the main consideration for choosing this hotel however the central location and amenities such as an indoor pool and ground floor Moxie’s Restaurant were added bonuses to make a stay at any rate more attractive.

My room was a 23rd floor Standard Queen category room with comfortable bed, mini-fridge, 32 inch flat screen TV, writing desk and comfy armchair with ottoman.

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The bathroom was small but functional enough with tub & shower but no exhaust fan. The lighting above the vanity was good and the water pressure and speed of hot water were both very good. Directly outside of the bathroom was a small nook with a clothes rack and half a dozen mini-clothes hangars as I’d not seen in my travels before. These wooden & metal hangars are roughly half the size of regular ones as I discovered when the dress shirt I tried to hang up slipped right off the mini-hangar and fell to the floor.

One bonus was a west facing room which afforded a glimpse of the Rockies in the distance.

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The unsupervised indoor pool is on the second or Atrium floor opposite the 24-hour business center with both accessed with a guest room card.  Change rooms are available at the pool which is open 6 AM to 10 PM. The business center features PC and printers but isn’t complimentary as a  there is a $5 charge for 20 minutes and this amount may be paid at the terminal itself by swiping a credit card or at the front desk who will provide a code once the activation fee is paid.

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The ground floor Moxie’s is just off the lobby and offers a restaurant and lounge and my first visit was underwhelming as I waited 5 – 7 minutes after seating myself in the lounge for staff to greet me before leaving to catch a cab to the Xmas party. I returned for a night cap hours later to better service from the bartender so left with an overall neutral impression.

The hotel has underground parking available for a fee and as noted on their website maximum vehicle height is 6 feet. I parked my car and noticed the automated kiosk for parking payment so entered my licence plate and inserted a credit card  only to have the screen fall blank. It was then that I looked to the side and noticed an advisory from the hotel that guests did not need to purchase a parking stub from the kiosk as the parking charge could be added to their room bill. I advised the front desk staff of my trouble with the parking payment kiosk and so far haven’t been double billed for the parking.

Calgary hotels have crept up in price in the last few years making this Sandman at around CAD$200 noticeably less expensive than other downtown accommodation and on that basis would recommend it for travellers on a short stopover. Guests used to the luxury perks of more upscale hotels however are likely to find this Sandman a little too moderate as it rates as a solid three-star hotel but for those wanting value in a downtown hotel it’s hard to beat.

Europe’s walkable cities

Having already posted my distain for “Top Ten” lists that are far too trite I thought I would instead share my favorite European destinations of those I’ve visited that are pedestrian-friendly and easily explored on foot. Before taking the first step however can’t help but chuckle when I read such online lists and see the likes of Paris, London and Rome as while all three are among the world capitals every traveller must experience they are large enough they need to be broken down into smaller neighborhoods to be more easily seen by walkers as their city centers aren’t easily or quickly traversed on foot. There is also no rhyme or reason to this list so won’t number the destinations as this isn’t a contest and all are winners for those who prefer compact city centers to wander at will.

  • Dublin

Very few sights in the city center of the capital of the Republic of Ireland are more than a 20 minute casual stroll from each other with most much less which is why Dublin is best seen on foot. While many of the historic sights such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College and Dublin Castle are clustered on the south side of the River Liffey that divides the city the north side deserves a peak and there’s no better way to traverse the river than the iconic Ha’penny Bridge so named as in 1816 it replaced a ferry but the construction cost was recovered as a toll of a half penny was extracted of everyone crossing it for a century.

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  • Amsterdam

Such a scenic city deserves to be seen up close and personal, preferably at quiet moments when the cobbled canal-side streets are free of traffic and you are joined by locals out for social calls or light shopping errands. The visitor exiting the sprawling Centraal Station needs only to stroll a few minutes up Damrak to Dam Square and the Royal palace to be at the center of this Dutch capital. In fact it was this dam on the river Amstel that gives the city its name.

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A word of warning for pedestrians to always be checking for speeding cyclists, cars, trams and busses as often all are competing for the same space or are crossing each others paths. Having your head on a swivel before taking the next step is always a very good habit to get into while in Amsterdam.

  • Florence

The epicenter of the Renaissance this Tuscan town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage List site and with good reason for its architectural and artistic significance. Climbing the winding curved staircase of Brunelleschi’s dome of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore which is more commonly known simply as Il Duomo di Firenze the intrepid visitor is rewarded with a view that seems right out of the 16th century.

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Florence Skyline by Maëlick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Unported License.

The Uffizi Gallery and nearby Ponte Vecchio make good starting points for casual city sightseeing with the main square Piazza della Signoria barely 100 M away. Take in this public space before moving onward to the Duomo and Accademia to stare at Michelangelo’s David but a worthy detour on the way back is to the Bargello National Museum which includes masterpieces by Michelangelo and at EUR 4 is one of the biggest values in Florence. Wander around this former prison and barracks without all the crowds of the Uffizi and marvel at its origins which go back to the 13th century.

  • Bruges

More than Amsterdam in miniature Bruges survived for centuries as an important trade center before losing its prominence to nearby Antwerp but its well preserved canals and compact quarters offer a rewarding contrast to its larger Dutch cousin.

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Bruges by Wolfgang Staudt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Bruges also is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage List site as “an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement, which has maintained its historic fabric as this has evolved over the centuries ” and deserves to be explore on foot in a compact historic district hardly more than a square kilometre in size. If able stay in a local hotel to amble the side streets after the day trip crowds have departed.

  • Avignon

On the left bank of the River Rhône this French town played host between 1309 and 1377 to seven popes after the split with Rome and owes much of its magnificent medieval monuments to this political schism. The Palais des Papes, is an austere-looking fortress which dominates the city and is easily seen from the remains of a 12th-century bridge which we sing the French song Sur le Pont d’Avignon

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Avignon along with Nimes and Arles make an interesting triangle of sights to see at a leisurely pace and having a rail pass helps.

  • Helsinki

With a flat, walkable city center and a scant few hundred metres between the main train station, Senate Square and harbour Helsinki inhabits a small space with water on every side and lots to experience in between.

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Some of Helsinki & Finland’s most important cultural institutions and museums are under one KM stroll from the harbour including the Suomen kansallismuseo or The National Museum of Finland with its kindly carved bear who greets visitors.

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As in many European cities the cobblestone streets of Helsinki can become slippery when wet so care is required at times and in place.

Many of the cities featured in this list are also exceptional cycling cities but that is another list for another day.

Nieuw & old; tracing New York’s Dutch heritage

If given half a chance I can prattle on like tour guide about the rich history of New York City’s boroughs but especially on the topic of the Dutch heritage as it utterly fascinates me having been to the Netherlands and seen the wealth the mighty merchant seafaring empire created and grown to love New York in a number of trips to the city over the years.

Henry Hudson is probably more familiar to Canadians for the bay that bears his name which he discovered in 1611 while trying to navigate a Northwest Passage to Cathay (China) but it was two years earlier on September 11, 1609 while employed by Dutch merchants that he sailed into what we now call Upper New York Bay while working for the Dutch East India Company searching for an Asia passage and explored  the river that also bears his name. Word of Hudson’s voyage helped lay the groundwork for Dutch founding of Fort Amsterdam in 1625 with the surrounding colony later named Nieuw Amsterdam before the English wrested permanent control of the colony in 1675 and renamed it New York after the English Duke of York, the future King James II.

The map below shows the Dutch colony complete with Fort Amsterdam upper left and a stout earthen wall running north and south forming the northern boundary offering some protection from both local native Americans and English colonial advances. The rough road that ran beside the wall was naturally called Wall Street and that name remains in use to this day although the only raiding conducted these days is of the corporate variety.

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Map of New Amsterdam, c. 1660. Source: New York Historical Society, Maps Collection. Reuse permitted by Public Domain.

New York Stock Exchange located at 11 Wall Street

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I had visited the inside of the stock exchange on a trip in 1998 but visitor access is no longer allowed due to security concerns.

Wall Street is but one of dozens of street, district and borough names that can trace their origin back to the Dutch including Brooklyn (Breukelen), The Bronx (named for Jonas Bronck), Staten Island (Staten Land), Harlem (Haarlem), Flushing (Vlissingen with the ‘V’ pronounced like an ‘F’ in Dutch), the Bowery (bouwerij), Long Island (Lange Eiland), Broadway (de Brede Weg), Coney Island (Konijneneiland  or ‘rabbit island’), Bleecker Street (blekers), Dutch Kills in Queens (kill meaning ‘little stream’ in Dutch) and Bedford-Stuyvesant – BedStuy for short – named for the last  director general of the  Dutch colony, Peter Stuyvesant.

Other than the names very little remains of the 17th century Dutch colony save for Wyckoff House, a home thought to have been built around 1652 which is now located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie.

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Wyckoff House by Dmadeo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The Wyckoff Museum is open to the public by guided tour only offering visitors a glimpse into life in the 17th century when all this area was a rural farmland and not the densely populated area it is today. The Wyckoff House is a registered New York Landmark as well as U.S. national Historic Landmark and there is more about it and the tracing of the Dutch influence in New York City in this excellent ifly TV video.

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Dutch heritage in New York by iFly TV is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Maui on my mind

Every time I arrive in Hawai’i I wonder what took me so long to return and upon departure whether if I stayed anyone would notice as there’s something about the islands that keeps me returning at irregular intervals and wanting to stay forever. I know that desire doesn’t make me unique among visitors to the islands that have enchanted travellers for a millennium but enjoy pondering the answer to both questions at random moments while waiting to leave for a holiday or contemplating returning from one.

After a decade-long hiatus between visits I resolved during my last visit to O’ahu in 2013 to return for a milestone birthday three years later and while that resolution went the way of countless New Year’s resolutions providence in the form of a WestJet seat sale this week afforded me the opportunity to plan an escape to Maui and grabbed it with both hands. It isn’t every day after all that Edmontonians can fly to Maui for CAD$400 including taxes so I seized the chance to plot an April holiday and look forward not only to the vacation itself but the promise of the holiday on all those cold winter days that lie between now and then.

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Escape To Maui by Maui Small Farms is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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