Editor’s note: On a daily basis from June 1 thru June 30, 2015 Pillar to Post online magazine is featuring articles, photos and insights resulting from a recent group tour, an adventure we dubbed: the April 23 Brigade’s Tour of Cuba 2015.
DAY 1, Thursday in Miami
Arrive in Miami and checked-in to Crowne Plaza hotel near the Miami Airport. Met Tour Manager Daniel Guzman. Later after a welcome mojito and an orientation meeting conducted by Daniel we met our fellow travelers. The remainder of the evening as free.
DAY 2, Friday Night in Cienfuegos, Cuba
At the hotel in Miami after breakfast a briefing was held by U.S. tour guide Daniel Guzman on trip details and the upcoming adventure. Following the briefing, an interactive discussion on US-Cuba relations from a Cuban-American perspective took place.
Our lecturer was Cuban born Gustavo Godoy, who has been living in the U.S. after his 1960 arrival. With his parents he escaped the revolution but many of his siblings remained in Cuba, where they are today. They keep him informed on the day to day living on the island. He is a noted author and lecturer concerning current Cuban/USA relations.
At Miami airport, we had a no rush wait for a 5:45 pm flight to Cienfuegos, on Cuba’s Southern coast and one of the nation’s bigger seaports. Upon landing at Cienfuego’s Jamie Gonzalez International aboard American owned Sun Country charters, many travelers aboard the 737 cheered and clapped loudly as soon as the plane touched down. Asking why they did this, a Cuban in the seat next to me shrugged “we do this all the time.”
After the half-hour flight we exited from the plane via stair ramp and walked across the tarmac the small arrival and customs area. Cuban customs was easy to navigate. Being on a tour expedited baggage collection and we breezed through the airport to our huge Chinese-made tour bus. We got to know bus #1117 very well.
Outside, we gathered to meet our Cuban tour guide Norkiss and driver Adrian. At this point we were all “buddy-ed up,” which is a simple way to count noses before the bus leaves any stop. All were asked to pick a buddy from the tour that was not a relative. My buddy was Nancy, a trust attorney from California. Each time we boarded the bus we had to visually ID our buddy before the bus would take off. The same attention was paid to our luggage. We had to personally witness out luggage being boarded on and off the bus.
Cienfuegos (called the pearl of the south) was very balmy. Weather we were used to in hometown San Diego. The expected sauna like humidity was not to be experienced during our stay. From the airport, we took a short ride to Hotel Jagua, a terrific tourist oriented hotel located on Punta Gorda, a small peninsula that juts out north to south into Cienfuegos huge natural bay.
Driving in we noticed much of the architecture reflects Cienfuegos French colonial roots. Upon arrival, transfer to the hotel for a welcoming mojito with your fellow travelers.
By the time, we refreshed in our rooms (ours were across the street at Hotel Jagua’s smaller wing, La Perla del Mar Hotel), it was dark. Feeling very sophisticated we strolled over to the Jagua’s Palacio del Valle restaurant.
Because it was our first dinner in Cuba we didn’t know what to expect.
Ladies and gentleman it was a feast to be remembered for years! No hyperbole intended the scene was what I hope my first night at the pearly gates will be like.
Enter the subtly lit grounds to the music of a talented combo of musicians, who know what to play to start the festivities. The outdoor area of the Palacio surrounds a grove of tall trees from which floral vines dangle down to the ground. It was from these vines that we were showed with naturally falling flower pedals (hyacinth). The custom made table are impossible to explain simply. That’s why I went back the next morning to photograph them.
A grand banyan tree provides a large vine covered canopy for the Palacio del Valle’s outdoor restaurant. Artistic custom stone benches and table bases serve diners. Metal work and in-place glass tops make the experience dining on art.
Elegantly dressed waiters and serving staff greeted us for drinks and explained the roasted pork buffet. Several of us went back for seconds of the pork, plus rice, black beans, potatoes in a veggie stew and more mojitos. There is a recipe for the rum mint concoction later in this blog series.
As dinner slipped into Cuban coffee and dessert, the musicians encouraged us to dance. I seldom dance, but in Cuba we were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. OK, now we’re in waters of hyperbole. The musicians were so enthusiastic and talented most were swept up into thinking we made the right choice as far as tour going went.
On the way back to our room, we stopped in the main lobby, where I ordered my first café con leche (an espresso with steamed milk). There is something about café con leche that I have tasted to my delight in France, Spain, Italy and now Cienfuegos. Yes, I can quickly fall asleep as caffeine has no impact on my sleep habits.
I also quickly became the most popular dinner companion on the tour, because fellow diners realized I do not imbibe alcohol so I handed away all the complimentary mojitos, wine, cerveza and after dinner drinks to anyone nearby. That’s why I am so fond of coffee drinks and Fanta brand orange sodas, which were plentiful in Cuba.
Sadly, the water is not safe for tourists. But Gate 1 makes sure there is an oversupply of bottled water at every food experience and bus tour.
DAILY CUISINE ROSTER.
Dinner: Hotel Jagua: Outdoor Palacio del Valle, once the lavish home of a 19th century sugar baron.