I’m behind on blogging as we settle into our year back in Paris. Still, I do want to write about our time in New Zealand (which included 2000 miles of driving!) before too much time slips by. So, first here’s a quick recap of the Princess repositioning cruise that got us there:
The Covid-19 pandemic canceled a three-week trip to New Zealand we’d planned to start in March 2020, within days of New Zealand shutting down. With the pandemic mostly behind us and New Zealand again opening, we were finally making the trip.read more
I haven’t blogged since last fall’s Belgium/Paris/Kenya/South Africa travels, but that’s not to say we haven’t traveled. David and I spent three months doing a transAtlantic cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Copenhagen, 5 weeks in Antwerp, 2 weeks near Geneva and a final stay in Corsica in the spring before heading home to Texas for a 4th of July family reunion and some summer pool time in the sun. Our spring travels were great, but I wasn’t sure I had much to add to the ever-swelling ocean of travel reviewers and bloggers. A dear friend disagrees, so I’m back at Wanderwiles just for you, Phyllis. I won’t detail it all (I’ve written a fair amount about our much-loved Antwerp already.), but there were some fun discoveries I’m happy to share.read more
We wanted to celebrate a big anniversary somewhere memorable, but as always in these strange times, Covid played a major factor in determining what was open to us (and with not too many related hoops to jump through) and what felt reasonably safe. That first “bulletproof” feeling after getting our vaccines was waning as breakthrough cases started popping up everywhere (including among family). Focusing on outdoorsy destinations seemed like a good idea… and, after a little research, the Galápagos Islands moved to the top of my list.read more
The final stop on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise before Bagan was the former colonial outpost of Salay. We unfortunately arrived in the heat of the afternoon, maybe because our schedule had been off for the last couple of days due to a 3-hour delay when we ran aground on one of the Irrawaddy’s many sandbars. We’d been warned in advance to expect such minor mishaps and to be flexible, and the delay had been a non-issue for the most part (and actually kind of interesting to watch the maneuvers involved in extricating the boat from its predicament).read more
Although Bagan and its 2000 stupas was the ultimate destination of our river cruise on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer, the first time we saw the city was from across a wide spot in the river and only a few days into our week aboard the steamer. We stopped overnight at Tant Kyi village, so we could visit the hilltop Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda with its sweeping view of the Irrawaddy and Bagan in the distance. Also, being there in the morning allowed us to see the many boats full of locals arrive at sunrise to visit Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda before heading back across the river to Bagan. The point of this early pilgrimage was to try to visit four special pagodas in one day, Tant Kyi Taung and three in Bagan. Yen explained that doing this is said to bring about the granting of a prayer, but the only way to visit all three is to begin in at dawn.read more
Another fun stop on our river steamer cruise down the Irrawaddy was at the large town of Pakkoku (population of about 100,000). As always, we moored at a rough bank of the river, no pier in sight. This time, we hiked up a steep flight of narrow stairs to find ourselves at a single-file footpath along the side of a field. As soon as we made the top of the river bank, we found women waiting to sell us the ubiquitous souvenirs: longyi (the local tube skirts worn by nearly everyone), jewelry, scarves and the like. One woman latched onto me immediately and we went through the now-familiar “you like?/maybe later?” routine. Although they can be persistent, we’ve found the Burmese to be much less pushy than other Asian vendors. Burmese are generally a friendly, cheerful group; the people on the street tend not to make overtures to us first, but they beam back when we smile at them and wave, or greet us with a bright “Mingalaba!,” the local greeting that is sort of a combination of “hello” and “auspiciousness to you.” Vendors do approach or call to us, of course, but they’re not overly aggressive, just hopeful. There was something particularly charming about my new friend, and I found myself considering that “maybe later” as she followed along the footpath with me. At the far end of the field, three larger, truck-style tuk tuks awaited our group. Climbing aboard, we were off on a dirt road through fields and past ox carts until we came to the intersection with a major paved road.read more
One of my favorite stops on our Irrawaddy riverboat cruise was Yandabo, a village known for pottery production. Yandabo is cleaner and more prosperous looking than many of the villages along the Irrawaddy. The government is assisting with funds to build a river wall (erosion being a big problem along the Irrawaddy) and the locals organized to clean up trash (another big problem along the river and in the villages). We were impressed to learn that the entire family of potters we visited had university degrees. Sadly, though, they could earn more making terracotta pots.read more
We’ve really been looking forward to our time on a wooden Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer. Prior to WWI, the largest river flotilla in the world was on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Most of these classic teak wood boats were destroyed, either by bombs or by scuttling. Pandaw, the river cruise line I’d chosen, salvaged and restored one of these boats, then built others, copying the original 1930’s style, but with modern updates. I’d carefully chosen our intimately-sized boat and even the side of the boat I wanted our cabin on. So, I was worried and disappointed to read an email from my booking agent the day before we boarded in Mandalay saying we’d been changed to a larger riverboat. A little research revealed this new boat, the Pandaw Orient, was 8 years older than the original, Pandaw Kindat; worse, the Orient had 30 cabins vs. 18 on the Kindat.read more
We’re just back from a short 4-night cruise, the highlight and point of which for us was to finally visit Havana, Cuba. We actually booked the same Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise last summer, trying to beat the new Trump-imposed regulations on travel to Cuba, but were thwarted when Hurricane Irma canceled the cruise. This time, all went beautifully and we found our day in Havana to be fascinating and the travel easy and hassle-free. [Note: Find more practical info and links at the bottom of this post.]
I had lots of questions and some concerns about the new regulations, pre-trip, and learned a lot by researching online. Still, I had questions to which I could find no answers, so this post will have plenty of practical info and details that I wish I’d known in advance.
Choosing a Category of Travel Under New Restrictions: We settled on making our first visit to Cuba by cruise ship simply because it was easy and the most sure-fire way to travel there without worrying about U.S. restrictions on travel. These reasons seemed even more relevant after the new regulations went into effect, doing away with individual “People-to-People” travel which had previously been the main way for Americans to do a general visit to Cuba. “People-to-People” is just one of many so-called “licenses” that Americans much choose in order to travel legally to Cuba. This is a U.S. requirement and means nothing to Cuban authorities.
Group “People-to-People” is still allowed and that is the category under which most cruise-line-sponsored shore excursions fall. Given the ridiculously high prices and large-group/motor-coach nature of those ship-sponsored excursions, I wanted to book a private tour. Under the new regulations, the preferred license category for individual travel is now “Support for the Cuban People.” We checked that box on the form supplied by NCL used by them to obtain our visas, and in addition, checked “Journalism” as we both freelance from time to time in addition to writing this blog. Since we specifically wanted to visit and write about breweries and beer in addition to travel and that would comprise a part of our itinerary in addition to the basic “Support for the Cuban People,” we wanted to be sure we covered all our bases.
Private Tour with Havana Journeys: After doing my initial research, I chose Havana Journeys for our tour. At $120/100CUC for a 6-hour private tour (not including lunch which we paid for separately), it was one of the best prices I found, had solid reviews, included a vintage car for the driving portion of our tour, and offered to provide a written “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary. We paid a deposit of 20CUC online (which resulted in a modest extra processing fee) with the 80CUC balance due on arrival in Havana. Havana Journeys were very professional in the lead up to our trip, replying promptly to questions, sending a photo of our guide, Katiusca, and telling us where to meet her (“by the Chopin statue” in Plaza de San Franciso, just across the road from the pier). Our ship was scheduled to dock at 10am and we were concerned that formalities and money exchange (Cuba is a cash-only destination) would take time, so we agreed to meet Katiusca at 11am.
Tour Disaster Averted. The only issue that came up with Havana Journeys–and it could have been a huge one–was an unexplained change in the date of our tour. We were arriving on Wednesday the 12th. I initially requested that date and they confirmed the date, but somehow on the final itinerary document sent by Havana Journeys shortly before our departure, the date was changed to Tuesday the 11th. I totally missed the change, so bear some responsibility, but I simply never imagined such a change, this being a port stop set by the cruise line and fixed from the time we purchased the cruise months prior. We spent 11am-2pm Tuesday the 11th on NCL’s private island in the Bahamas, so had no Internet access although I’d bought ship wi-fi (something I had not intended to do) due to a last-minute situation at home that required my availability. Thank God I did! When we returned to the ship Tuesday, I found I’d missed several WhatsApp calls and messages. Havana Journeys was trying desperately to reach me: The guide was waiting for us. Where were we? Katiusca would wait 1h45m for us before giving up…and that time was passed by the time I got the WhatsApp messages. What to do?? I quickly tried to call back, but got no answer. I emailed every address I had for Havana Journeys, wondering what we’d do if I couldn’t reach them…and very thankful I at least had the notice I did. If we’d just showed up the next day, ignorant of the situation, we’d have waited in the heat, wasting our precious time in Havana, and eventually going off in search of some way to reach Havana Journeys. I had contact numbers for them in the U.S. and mobile and land line numbers for the contact in Cuba, but not a number for the guide since we would not have phone service in Cuba or on the ship. Internet is scarce in Cuba, so we’d have had some problem finding wi-fi before I could even begin to try to contact someone. Thankfully, I did finally reach Havana Journeys by WhatsApp call. While I waited on the line, they rescheduled Katiusca for the original, correct date and we were back on. Whew! Moral of this Story (which I knew and didn’t do): CHECK AND RE-CHECK DATES.
Docking in Havana. Although scheduled to dock at 10am, we actually docked earlier, sailing past iconic landmarks I’d only see in photographs and video: El Morro fortress, the Hotel Nacional…It was thrilling. The cruise terminal in Havana is wonderfully convenient. We pulled up to the pier, “parking” like some mammoth car, just across the street from lovely Plaza de San Francisco. We joined other passengers on the bow of our ship smiling and waving at the people just below and the vintage American cars gliding by. I could even spot the head of the bronze Chopin statue were we were to meet our guide. Cruise ports don’t get much more conveniently located.
Group tickets assigning debarkation times were to be handed out starting at 8:30am, but they started early and David was only able to get us in Group 4. This turned out to be a non-issue as they started calling groups before 10am, called Group 2 about 10 minutes after Group 1, then called Groups 3 and 4 together. We stepped off the ship at 10:02am. Despite our concerns, we breezed through customs, security and money changing and were out on the street 20 minutes after we exited the ship. At the customs booth, the agent took the paper tourist visa we’d been given by the ship, snapped a photo, stamped our passports and we were off. Security is just a standard airport-style x-ray machine. Money exchange is at the far end of the rectangular terminal building. Many people were on duty there and there was virtually no wait. The man we dealt with was friendly and spoke good English, and was very patient as we exchanged both the last of our euros and U.S. dollars. (There’s a 10% penalty for changing dollars due to the chilly relations between our countries, so the exchange rate is better for euros.) Despite being warned repeatedly that foreigners must change money to the local closed tourist currency, the CUC, we found out later that many individuals and places apparently do take foreign money. I wish we had known. Havana Journeys did, however, require us to pay the balance of the tour (80CUC) to Katiusca in CUC.
With nearly 40 minutes before we were scheduled to meet our guide, we opted to visit the 16th century basilica and the monastery of San Francisco de Asis (Saint Francis of Assisi) on Plaza de San Francisco. The building is undergoing renovation, but much is still open including the sanctuary, and two floors of the monastery surrounding an open central courtyard; it’s a lovely spot. A small orchestra playing in the main sanctuary added to the experience and the guides scattered throughout were helpful and friendly, even encouraging me to climb up on the wall of an upper floor terrace to take photos and a video of the lovely square below where I could see the bronze Chopin statue where we were to meet our guide.
Our month cruise from Singapore to Italy was better than we could have hoped for, but now it was time to be back on our own and we were looking forward to it. Civitavecchia is the nearest port to Rome and most information about the port assumes people are going to Rome either to stay or to fly out of the airport. We’d used a driver in the past to get from the port to Rome, but this time we were skipping the Italian capital and heading north. I wanted to rent a car for the 2+ weeks we planned to tool around Umbria and Tuscany, but I had trouble finding clear info online. I knew the port was too big to walk out of and that passengers not wanting to rely on expensive cruise ship excursions and transfers needed to get out of the main port gate to get to other modes of transport–taxi, train, rent cars–but the info was vague. This short post is just to clarify transport options and the lay of the land at the Port of Civitavecchia.
The ship offered a free motor coach shuttle to an area just outside the port gates where other transportation is offered. Buses for the train station pick up here for €2 per person. Rent car pick up is just across the street. I’d booked us a Hertz rent car and emailed with them from the previous port. When we left the ship, I called them (Hooray again for T-Mobile international!) and a van arrived to pick us up shortly after we got off the ship’s shuttle. Another 5-minute drive and we were at the Hertz office in a nearby strip center where we did paperwork and were on our way in short order.