Arriving at Havana’s International Airport you know immediately you are in the third world. The plane pulls close to the flat-roofed terminal. A staircase is rolled up to the plane to allow passengers to debark. My flight, one of many no frills charters (no drink service, music, etc.), this one by Xtra Airways out of Miami, contained mainly Americans.
President Obama reopened the American Embassy in Cuba at the end of 2015, heralding the start of eased restrictions on American tourism. Even before visitors from the U.S. started arriving, Cuba already had decided to promote tourism to the rest of the world and began putting resources toward it. Still, the infrastructure isn’t there for the higher level of comfort that visitors from the U.S. desire. Current hotels are not up to snuff, but they are changing rapidly to meet higher standards. Meanwhile, staying with a family is the best way to lodge in Cuba. Airbnb is active there, and it solves the problem of paying for lodging, as American banks still have not integrated with the Cuban state bank to accept credit cards. (Note: if you have a Canadian credit card, it will work.)
Two fascinating early American churches in close proximity to each other are in easily accessible Panama, a lot closer than Europe.
Atalaya, Panama, about a half-hour drive west of Santiago, is home to an annual pilgrimage for Panamanians from around the predominantly Catholic country. Like many of the religious ceremonies throughout Latin America, it has a rich history and is fascinating to witness.
If you haven’t eaten in a true “diner,” you’re missing out on one of the quintessential remnants of American history. The largest number of remaining diners are spread through New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. In Texas, the closest thing to a diner is a Waffle House, whose design intentionally mimics that of the original diners.
What makes diners special? They serve very large, sometimes greasy meals (main dish, side and drink) for around $10, and usually include classic American desserts on the menu — things like especially delicious homemade cheesecake, apple and blueberry pies — that you cannot easily duplicate elsewhere. The food offerings have great variety, but you typically won’t find a paper menu. Rather the menu is posted on a board on the wall. Today (for some unknown reason) many diners are operated by Americans of Greek descent, so the menu and desserts include Greek specialties along with “New York” favorites.
Do you like striking up a conversation with a total stranger? Maybe you like people watching. In either case, you should consider a trip on America’s trains. It’s a great way to meet and observe fascinating people while seeing a lot of scenery.
America’s trains are not as fast as Japan’s and not as luxurious as the Orient Express, but they offer a unique charm. They usually have quiet cars where people aren’t supposed to talk loudly, so work or sleep comes easier. There are snack bars and some have white tablecloth dining rooms with white-gloved waiters. Amtrak could be extended to go more places, but there is no way you could ride the entire system as it is today.
Getting the window seat may be important if you want to take photos
Some people won’t accept anything less than white-glove service. Some just want to get to a destination at the lowest cost. Either way, no one wants to get ripped off spending more than necessary. Generally, you get what you pay for, but not always. Sometimes the person sitting next to you on the airplane paid a quarter of what you did. So how can we learn what the bottom line is?
The first thing to know is that flying round trip is usually cheaper, but not always. So always check one-way pricing too. Also, if traveling with other people, it may be best to book each reservation separately. I have found that I can get one ticket for less than two sometimes when there is only one low-priced seat left.
In international competitions, the best coffee isn’t a brand you know because these best coffees are grown and roasted in small quantities and do not sell to the mass market.
I wanted to understand what makes an award-winning coffee, so I visited a high-quality coffee farm in the highlands of western Panama, close to Costa Rica. Usually black coffee has a slightly bitter taste to me. Not so for the coffee made at Finca La Milagrosa (Miracle Farm) run by proprietor Tito Vargas, in Boquete, a town favored by ex-patriates for its cool climate despite being in the tropics and close to the equator.
National parks in New York City? Yes, there are 10. You probably already know one of them — the Statute of Liberty National Monument and nearby Ellis Island form a park. All are fascinating. On this centennial of the national park system, I thought we’d look at national parks in the Big Apple. Wherever I go the national parks never cease to live up to their great reputation. While many national parks attract a large number of visitors, the national parks of New York City aren’t super busy.
Only one national park in the New York City is suitable for camping out. The Gateway National Recreation Area is spread over multiple New York City boroughs and New Jersey. It consists of many refuges for local wildlife, mainly native birds and small animals. Its 27,000 acres are hard to summarize, so check it out online. There is no entrance fee but there are parking fees. Campsites for people who would rather sleep outdoors during their New York City visit are available.
In Moscow, the Cyrillic letters on the menu imposed an impossible challenge to convert to anything approaching understandable. My friend there got so frustrated he bounded from the table, headed to some nearby diners and literally starting pointing at what he wanted for the waiter to take his order.