02
May
17

Cuba: Timeless Havana


Havana is where I grew up.  No, I’m not referring to the capital and largest city of Cuba but to a street in a little town of Tanauan in the island of Leyte, Philippines.  As a kid who was entranced with geography and world history I learned about the city of Havana in Cuba, definitely grander, more famous and controversy-laden. I dreamed of setting foot on it one day even though it seemed out of reach for me that time, being thousands of miles away from the other Havana I called home. I never stopped dreaming.

I almost made it to the other Havana on January 29, 2017 with my parents and two siblings only to suddenly make a turnaround flight alone upon landing at the Jose Marti International Airport. Arrival-Immigration-Customs-Checkin-Boarding. Kudos to Jetblue for the wonderful service providing me a dedicated staff as I breezed past through everything. Kudos to Jetblue too for the complimentary, fast and efficient Wi-Fi that I was able to learn about the family emergency while we’re up in the air that I really needed to head back to New York.  As persistent as I could be, two weeks later I tried again to make it to Havana, this time all alone. Yes, on February 10, 2017, I finally reached Havana, Cuba, one of the most enigmatic cities that I have always wanted to discover. This time Jetblue’s lower fares for its direct flights to Cuba were already sold out so I had to take that detour to Mexico City via Aeromexico for more than three hundred bucks of savings.

FLYING INTO CUBA

Flying into Cuba is not a big hassle.  The communist nation is warmly welcoming visitors from all over the world even Americans.  However, if your flight is coming direct from a U.S. city, you will be asked by the airline about the purpose of your travel.  As tourist travel by Americans remains prohibited, you should choose one of 12 U.S. government-approved categories of travel to Cuba. At the airport check-in is where you usually buy the Cuban visa.  An alternative way to enter Cuba is to fly via Mexico, Canada or a Caribbean island.

Tip:  If you are coming from the U.S., Jetblue Airways charges the cheapest Cuban visa issued by an airline at US$50.  Other U.S. airlines charge US$75.  However, if you are coming from Canada, Europe or via Mexico (just like me), the airlines at the airport only charge less than US$20.

ARRIVAL IN HAVANA

IMG_8361We arrived at the terminal 3 of Havana’s ageing airport. I was able to clear immigration and customs in less than 30 minutes. The lines for the currency exchange and taxis at the airport seemed like a mile long so I took the offer of an English-speaking taxi driver for an easy way out of the airport for 30 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Currency).

IMG_8337The 30-minute trip to Vedado along streets with beautifully lined-up palm trees included a quick stop at a major hotel in Vedado where there was no long line to exchange my euros into CUC which is the currency used by tourists. I then quickly dropped off my things at my Airbnb lodging in Vedado and changed into a more comfortable outfit. I requested the same taxi driver to take me to Old Havana, a 10-min. drive away for an additional 5 CUC.

Tips
  1. Bring a lot of cash and as much as possible try not to bring U.S. dollars into Cuba as you will be charged an additional 10% fee using this currency.  Bring British pounds, euros, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos.
  2. If you are the uber adventurous, you can leave the airport and walk a bit into the main road where taxis can bring you to the city center for just 10 CUC.  This is what a German lady told me when we chatted in Old Havana that she and her husband have been doing for many times.
  3. Taxis would charge usually higher than the normal fares (7CUC instead of 5CUC for example) so always try to bargain.  If they won’t agree, try to find another one but they usually would settle for the reduced amount.

 

WHAT TO SEE IN HAVANA

AROUND PLAZA DE LA CATEDRAL

DSC_0844The taxi driver dropped me along Malecon about 2 minutes walk to the Plaza de la Catedral area.

 

 

DSC_0755The first major attraction I saw was the Plaza de la Catedral where the imposing 240-year old Catedral de San Cristobal stands. It is one of the five main squares of Havana, a city that will celebrate its 500th year of existence in 2020.

CSC_0854A restaurant called El Patio is at the left side of the square and is a popular place to people watch while dining.

 

 

DSC_0654Completed in 1777, the cathedral is a striking example of Cuban baroque architecture.

DSC_0769At sunset, which is my favorite time to shoot on a clear sunny day, the square exudes a different character as the evening lights are starting to come alive.

DSC_0779In front of the Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum) is where photographers would mostly converge to take the best shot of the cathedral and the buildings around it.

DSC_0771At this location too is where I met two young, lovely and friendly Peruvian ladies, Helen and Susan. Helen, the half-Russian, half-Peruvian, made the first move and gladly offered to take my photos. They became my travel companions for the rest of my short stay in Havana.

IMG_8355Just a few steps from Plaza de la Catedral is La Bodeguita del Medio, a very famous restaurant bar which is one of Hemingway’s stopovers. Quite cramped and crowded, I would call this place a bit over-rated.

ALONG CALLE OBISPO

DSC_0749Linking the area of Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Armas with Parque Central and Paseo de Marti is the very busy Calle Obispo.

 

 

DSC_0660Both locals and tourists fill in what is probably the most crowded street in Havana.

 

 

CSC_0665You could even find a lot of Cuban students roaming around too for whatever reason.

 

 

CSC_0765The stretch has plenty of souvenir shops…..

 

 

DSC_0748…bookstores……

 

 

 

DSC_0667…and full-packed places like the tiny Floridita. At the end of Calle Obispo near Parque Central before reaching Paseo de Marti is the famous bar that still attracts a huge number of Havana visitors.

 

 

IMG_8350In the 50s, it was named by Esquire magazine as one of the seven greatest bars in the world together with Raffles Bar in Singapore, Ritz Bar in Paris, 21 Club in New York, Pied Piper Bar in San Francisco & Shelbourne Hotel Bar in Dublin.

 

 

IMG_8351It may have lost its position in that listing but still when you get inside the place you could feel the grandeur it once had.

 

 

DSC_0736The classic main bar still remains and the staff are truly nice even if they are so busy.

IMG_8349Whether you like daiquiri or margarita, you would love the place with its reasonable prices and great-tasting cocktails.

 

 

CSC_0739Until this day it is frequented by a lot of visitors daily.  It was late afternoon when I got in and it was full. It was hard to get a seat so others would be glad to just stand and stay at the bar or even drink outside.  I had one glass of a drink and I left.

 

 

DSC_0735Just outside Floridita is the station for the cool Coco Taxi.

 

Along Paseo de Marti & Around Parque Central

DSC_0787The most relevant and the most splendid of Havana’s boulevards is Paseo de Marti that encompasses the area from the west end of the Capitolio to the east end of Parque Central shown above.

 

 

DSC_0790To my back is the Gran Teatro Nacional and the classic Hotel Inglatera both situated along Paseo de Marti,

 

 

DSC_0795Hotel Inglaterra is Havana’s oldest hotel. In late 2017 it would soon become part of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).

 

 

IMG_8367This is part of the grand lobby and behind those steel bars is one of the hotel’s restaurants where the buffet breakfast is served.

 

 

IMG_8365I took my breakfast here one time and the 8 CUC I paid was more than worth it.  There was wide variety of food like the usual Western choices of eggs, sausages, toast, potatoes and many others. I was surprised in a positive way that they even served sardines!  Yes, the coffee was good too!

 

 

IMG_8363In the hotel lobby is a plaque honoring Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti.

 

 

 

CSC_0857Opposite Hotel Inglaterra is a stop for the HabanaBusTour.

 

 

 

DSC_0669In front of the Gran Teatro Nacional and around Parque Central is a staggering display of colorful American vintage cars.

 

 

 

CSC_0703Along Paseo de Marti is the Payret, the oldest and largest cinema in Central Havana.

 

 

CSC_0698To the left is the partly seen Gran Teatro Nacional and to the right is part of the Payret.

 

 

CSC_0695Several steps away from Parque Central one can have the best view of the Gran Teatro Nacional.

 

 

CSC_0694With the vintage cars of different colors constantly passing by,  selfies are truly worth all the effort at this vantage point.

 

 

DSC_0688Paseo de Marti is a major street and buses also ply the route.

 

 

DSC_0716Walking farther away from Gran Teatro Nacional, one can have the striking view of the Capitolio and the colorful buildings along Paseo de Marti.

 

 

CSC_0699At this area is where I met the German lady who told me about the cheapest way to get out of the airport to your destination. With the colorful buildings as background it is worth the time to spend a bit of your time here watching colorful vintage cars pass by.  Name the color, pink….

 

 

DSC_0672….green…..orange,,,,,

 

 

DSC_0721…yellow, you will surely find your favorite one!

 

DSC_0670Horse-drawn carriages are still available too albeit only for visitors.

 

 

DSC_0706At this area too was the first time I watched old sedans picking up local commuters who would squeeze themselves in with as much as 10 other people. It is probably their alternative mode of transportation that is akin to a mass taxi.  I wonder how much the locals pay and how far those cars can take passengers.

 

 

IMG_8359This is the Gran Teatro Nacional at night.

 

Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial)

DSC_0814We took time to visit the historic Plaza de la Revolucion where Fidel Castro delivered speeches in this vast square, attracting more than a million people at times. In the center of the Plaza de la Revolucion stands a 109-meter gray tower, a memorial to the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti, while a large, white marble statue of him lies at its base. Below the statue is the entrance to the interior of the Jose Marti Memorial, which contains a museum on Marti. Visitors can ascend the tower for incredible views over Havana.

 

 

DSC_0815Opposite the memorial, the famous giant portrait of Che Guevara adorns the Ministry of Interior building.

 

 

CSC_0856In another building, the portrait of Castro adorns another building.  Oh yes, that is me in a vintage orange Chevrolet car!

 

 

DSC_0799We hailed this taxi in front of Hotel Inglaterra. Our initial agreement was for the driver to drop us at the Plaza de la Revolucion but we ended up getting the return trip to Old Havana for free as he agreed to take us back since he was going the same way anyway for a passenger pickup.

 

 

IMG_8368Everything was made possible with the negotiation skills of my new found Spanish-speaking friends from Peru, Helena and Susana, whom I met at the Plaza de la Catedral the previous day.

 

 

DSC_0817We enjoyed the ride on the streets of Havana….

 

 

DSC_0821…and along the windy coastal stretch of Malecon.

 

 

DSC_0800Yes,  the two ladies made local heads turn.

 

 

Plaza de Armas

DSC_0926From Malecon, instead of turning to the direction of Plaza de la Catedral going straight would lead you to Plaza de Armas.

 

 

DSC_0753You would encounter ladies in colorful garments….

 

 

CSC_0764…..who would shower you with hot kisses!

 

 

CSC_0917You can also chance upon colorful musical parade.

 

 

DSC_0848In the middle of the day you can also sip freshly made piña colada sold at stalls around the area.  You can request for free for more rum if you want the drink stronger!

 

 

DSC_0751If you would like to dine or chill, restaurants and cafes abound the area surrounding Plaza de Armas.

 

 

DSC_0754Colorful paintings of Havana and Cuba for sale are on display too.

 

 

Along Calle O’Reilly

IMG_8383Calle O’Reilly is parallel to the more famous and busier Calle Obispo.  One time, coming from Plaza de Armas we traversed this narrow street to go into the road less traveled avoiding the crowd at Obispo.  It was not bad after all as we found restaurants and shops waiting to be discovered tucked on this stretch.

 

IMG_8380Also, at Calle O’Reilly we had some barber talk. I was not the one who actually got engaged in a conversation but my newly found Peruvian friends who speak Spanish. They chatted with the barber how Cuba had survived despite the U.S. trade embargo. Venezuela, Russia and North Korea were its only trading partners. Cuba made its way to create its own refineries to fuel its economy. However as I experienced it, the trade embargo still affected the Cuban people in a big way.

 

Palacio de los Capitanes

DSC_0859In the same way going to Plaza de Armas is the historic Palacio de los Capitanes which is just in front of the plaza.

 

 

DSC_0864With a bargain 3 CUC entrance fee, this museum was worth the visit.

 

 

DSC_0869Yeah, the Cuban flag!  This was taken at the entrance to the palace.

 

 

DSC_0911The two-story massive building is the former official residence of the Spanish governors of Cuba.

 

 

DSC_0878The galleried second storey of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales are preserved with their original colonial decorations and furniture.

 

 

CSC_0922The complex houses exhibitions of art and historical artifacts.

 

 

CSC_0923This was taken in one of the rooms in the upper level with all those classic canons.

DSC_0889This was taken from the upper storey that looks down onto a central courtyard with its signature two palm trees.

 

 

CSC_0900The Hall of Heroic Cuba contains important objects from the wars of independence and many flags of national significance including the flag of Carlos Manuel Cespedes, the “Father of the Homeland” (Padre de la Patria).

 

 

DSC_0912On the ground floor, only two things caught our attention.  One was the colorful peacock roaming around….

 

 

DSC_0910…and the opulent and well-preserved carriages used by the Spanish governor generals.

 

 

Parque Historico Militar

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Hotel Nacional de Cuba

DSC_0943My last day was spent in the magnificent historic luxury hotel, Hotel Nacional de Cuba located in Vedado area where I was staying.

DSC_0942The hotel was built with a mix of styles including Sevillian, Roman, Moorish and Art Deco.

 

 

DSC_0946The hotel opened in 1930 as the National Hotel of Cuba.  30 years later Fidel Castro nationalized the hotel.

 

 

DSC_0934Our best moment here was the Cuba libre time!

 

 

DSC_0935The overflow area of the hotel lobby was fully occupied during the happy, sunset hours.

 

 

DSC_0930We finally got a table and our drinks!  Cheers!

 

 

DSC_0939Here they are again my new friends from Peru who were with me again on this happy, sunset time.

 

 

DSC_0944Fidel Castro is immortalized in this painting inside the lobby of the Hotel Nacional of the Cuban revolution he led in 1959.

 

 

IMG_8387As I was on a taxi on my way back to my Airbnb lodging along Malecon watching as the sun was about to set, I felt extremely thankful to God for making this trip possible and made me experience the Cuban life even in such a short period of time. Cubans are one of the nicest people I have met.  Crime is almost unheard of  and the city is relatively safe but still I would recommend utmost care especially at night. Cuba has the highest literacy rates in the world at 99.7% but still most of them are struggling to make a living because of the Cuban trade embargo. The poorer ones who are in the tourist-related service would persistently convince visitors to take a tour, check-in to a certain hotel or to dine at a recommended restaurant so that they can earn extra via commission but certainly they are not  rude. They touched my heart in a certain way.  Even poverty (as defined by world standards, not mine) cannot extinguish their joy.  Life goes on in this beautiful island nation.

 

 

LODGING IN HAVANA

17888928_10211113364984491_1719925327_nAfter reading the somewhat negative reviews of hotels in Havana all over the internet, I decided to take my first Airbnb booking! I chose the upscale residential area of Vedado and I was not disappointed at all.  I was able to experience how to live like a local.

17888502_10211113003455453_315082916_nI took this two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Vedado.  My parents and two siblings stayed in this place two weeks before I did and they gave high marks for this place and the owner so I unhesitatingly booked this place.

 

 

95449023_originalThe living room was spacious and cozy.

 

 

17909518_10211112994615232_588966798_nb6775aa2_original-1The bedrooms were equipped with cabinets, air-conditioning system, a fan and safety boxes.

 

 

17888796_10211112994775236_1204263226_nForemost homey, the place was also consistently clean and very contemporary.

 

 

17888289_10211112994495229_76060224_nComplete with a fully-equipped kitchen, living and dining areas…..

cd37a978_original-1…….plus a spacious veranda, this place is home far away from home.  Just in front of the house is a wet market so if you plan to cook your own food this place will be more than perfect for you.

 

 

17888133_10211112994415227_891926426_nThe bathroom is nice as well. No bathtub but warm water is readily available.  As an honest suggestion, just bring your own soap or body wash. Trade embargo says it all.

 

 

17888909_10211112997455303_807540602_nPictured here are the extra pleasant and very accommodating Airbnb owners Osmary and Jose with my parents and two siblings.

17888827_10211112997575306_1897241033_nThe couple took care of my family and myself very well.

If you want to be very near Old Havana then choose the high end hotels like the Hotel Inglaterra or Hotel Parque Central. I am really not sure though on the condition of the rooms and services. But if you do not mind being 10 minutes away from Old Havana, then choose Vedado area, either staying at the expensive Hotel Nacional or at one of the nicer Airbnb lodgings, like I did, to experience how to live like a local.

 

 

DEPARTING CUBA

IMG_8411This is the departure area of terminal 3 of the Jose Marti International Airport. The duty free area is in a sad, poor state, at least in this terminal where we departed. It is small, a bit dark and the products are of low quality except for these two world-class items: cigar and rum. These two are Cuba’s most celebrated exports.

If entering Havana was one for the books for me, I never expected that leaving the city would be a bigger story as I almost did not make it to the airport terminal.  The taxi driver that took me from the airport to the city center on my arrival agreed to pick me up at 3 a.m. for my ride from the city to the airport on my departure day. He did not show up. The owner of the Airbnb lodging gave me a ride and found for me a taxi that would take me to the airport. He found one but due to misunderstanding I was dropped at the wrong terminal that was not even open for the day yet! I waited at the airport entrance almost panicking because the correct terminal was two miles away! Yes I was contemplating on walking two miles until the unexpected happened! Thank God for sending a taxi driver who was trying to pick up passengers at the still closed terminal that I was able to make it to the correct terminal.

It was indeed an unbelievable story from beginning to end. So long Havana! It would be really nice to come back to experience Cayo Largo Sur, Trinidad and Santiago.

28
Apr
17

U.S./Florida: Siesta & Bradenton Beaches


Coming from an unforgettable trip to lovely Key West and the remote yet jaw-dropping  Dry Tortugas National Park, we moved on to visit the beaches of Siesta and Brandenton, a 3.5 hours drive west of Miami.

SIESTA BEACH

SIESTAWe finally stepped on Siesta Beach after moving around the huge parking lot for 15 minutes trying to find a spot. One doesn’t have to pay for any parking fees here but since the beach is magnificent and it is insanely crowded,  the parking lots are always full so arriving early in the morning is highly suggested. This beach has been adjudged as the #1 beach in the U.S.A. in 2011 by Dr. Beach.

 

 

 

DSC_5959The entrance area has shower and changing rooms, drinks/food dispenser and picnic tables and benches.

 

 

DSC_5968We spotted some security personnel on horses.

 

 

 

DSC_5950We only brought in a very unique nylon beach mat from the Philippines and we settled ourselves one crowd row away from the shore.  Can you spot me sitting on the mat with a white cap and blue shorts?

 

 

DSC_5936This is how crowded the beach was.  As you can also see the water appears crystal clear and the white sand looks sugar-fine.

 

 

DSC_5949Indeed this beach is unique. Unlike beaches elsewhere that are made up mostly of pulverized coral, Siesta Beach’s sand is 99% quartz. Even on the hottest days, the sand is so reflective that it feels cool underfoot. It’s estimated that the sand on Siesta Beach and Crescent Beach on Siesta Key is millions of years old, having its origin in the Appalachians and flowing down the rivers from the mountains until it eventually was deposited on the shores of Siesta Key.

 

 

DSC_5935Here are more photos of the beach.

 

 

DSC_5941

DSC_5942

DSC_5945

11080927_10206384113910260_1367326432260468311_nDSC_5931DSC_5930

11013529_10206384114630278_7658242733079957749_nDSC_5923This is me just sitting on our unique beach mat from the Philippines with the busy crowd as background.

 

 

DSC_5933That is my beloved wife after taking a swim in the gorgeous waters.

 

 

DSC_5921This beach proved to be really magnificent but disappointingly crowded.  We promise we’d be back someday hoping there would be lesser crowd or we would try to base ourselves farther from the crowd either to the left or right side of the main entrance.

BRADENTON BEACH

From Siesta Beach we drove up north to Bradenton Beach in Ana Maria Island.  Compared to Siesta this place proved to be less spectacular based on the beach sand and water clarity.  What it lacked on the whiteness and fineness of its beach sand were easily covered up by the amazing choices of the dining places especially during sunset time.

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The beach is wider and less crowded.  I did not even see people swimming on the beach.

1797367_10206385784672028_9165763336539045116_nThis was taken from the Beach House restaurant where we checked in to have dinner watching as the sun would disappear into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

 

11081180_10206385785432047_340022473850304856_nAs we waited for our table to be ready, we walked unto the shore and took some photos.

 

 

11081311_10206385785072038_2551777463119039881_nA very nice and somewhat tipsy lady offered to take a snapshot of my wife and me.

 

 

DSC_5969As we waited for our dinner to be served, we enjoyed the scenery around the al fresco and seaside area of the restaurant.

 

 

bradenton sunset2Sunsets are amazing and our sunset experience here in Bradenton Beach would become one of the best we ever had.

bradenton sunsetThe restaurant ran a sort of a contest for all its customers to guess what time exactly would the sun actually disappear from the horizon.  I did not win. Someone else did.

DSC_5971Ahhhh we were just amazed at the breathtaking sunset unfolding before our eyes.

 

 

DSC_5975 2Indeed it was a a day well spent.  A few more minutes after the sun had set, we drove back to our base station in Fort Lauderdale to prepare for our flight the next day back to New York.

20
Mar
17

U.S.: St. John, Virgin Islands


In celebrating the 100th year of U.S. National Parks, we decided to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands composed of the three stunning islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. St. John’s awe-inspiring Trunk Bay was the main reason why we decided to base ourselves in St. John away from the maddening cruise ship crowd of St. Thomas.  Two-thirds of the island of St. John is protected as part of the Virgin Islands National Park.

We flew from New York’s JFK airport into St. Thomas which is the primary gateway to both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. We were whisked off from the airport by a private shuttle bus provided by the Westin St. John to the dock where we took the private ferry direct from  St. Thomas to the Westin dock in St. John.  We chose this route as we had our four-month old baby girl in tow.  An alternative and cheaper but more inconvenient route would be to take a 30-min. taxi from the airport to Red Hook in St. Thomas and take the ferry from there to Cruz Bay in St. John and then take a short taxi ride to the hotel.  All transportation information to St. John can be found at this link.

THE WESTIN ST. JOHN

We earned enough Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points for the year to spend a few nights at any Westin property so selecting our hotel in St. John was a no-brainer.  Otherwise, it would have been a toss-up between Westin St. John & Caneel Bay Resort if I wanted closer to Cruz Bay area.

image2Taking the hotel private ferry gives passengers a spectacular approach to the Westin dock as the ferry  makes its way to the docking area……..

image1…..and as the amazing strip of the private white sand beach comes into view in a stunningly clear and sunny weather like what we experienced.

IMG_5018Here is how the resort would look like from above.  I flew my drone much higher to get this shot. Just kidding.  Photo credit goes to the resort website.

USVI8As we arrived at the resort, we were immediately served the great tasting island signature rum punch as the welcome drink at the check-in area.  We brought our refillable drinks with us as we were transported by a hotel cart to our room.  Our luggage was delivered later. We were given a room facing the pool (shown above) that made it possible for me and my wife to dip in the pool later while our little angel slept. We brought with us our video monitor that worked via the hotel’s complimentary and reliable  Wi-Fi.

USVI3Shown here is part of the massive hotel pool during the day.

FullSizeRender_3Early one beautiful morning we had a photo shoot at the resort’s pool side when almost everyone was still asleep or was busy having breakfast.

image23Our lovely, little angel, shown here with my voluptuous wife, was very cooperative.

image25She even posed for some unforgettable shot.

image13At the other end of the resort near the breakfast area are the colorful canoes and speedboat docked at the resort’s private beach available for guests.

image27Whether it is late afternoon….

IMG_5132

image5..or early morning, the resort’s private beach is a great place to relax.

TRUNK BAY

DSC_0065This beautiful piece of paradise is a part of the Virgin Islands National Park and it is the main reason of our visit to USVI.  This photo was taken from the final vantage point as we began to descend to the entrance of the magnificent beach.  If you are driving your own rented car you can just stop by the lookout area. Taxis would usually make stops too that is why I was able to take this shot.

USVI6I have previously read that even if there is an entrance fee to the national park, if you arrive before it opens at 7:30 a.m. you won’t be paying anything.  We arrived there around 8:00 a.m. and the ticket counter was still closed so we did not pay anything!  We just paid for the chairs and umbrellas later rented at the single store operating there.

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What a great treat to have the entire beach to ourselves! I was actually hoping that day that the massive cruise ship crowd won’t be filling this beautiful beach and certainly they did not for the entire time that we were there!  There is actually a cruise ship schedule to make one aware when the crowd would be arriving at St. Thomas and be flooding Trunk Bay.

USVI5An hour after we arrived, there were still less than ten people on the beach.

DSC_0001This not-so-young lady kept walking from one end of the beach to the other for many times since we arrived.  Like us, she could not get enough of the stunning scenery!

CSC_0021Now as more people rushed into the beach I set up my camera on a tree and we had our family portrait.

CSC_0010As our little angel took a nap under the shade on her mother’s arms…..

CSC_0051……I explored the other end of the beach!

DSC_0049There were boulders that were less distinctive than the ones in Virgin Gorda, BVI.

DSC_0040Yet from that point, the view of Trunk Bay was truly breathtaking.

USVI4At last one of the beaches I was dying to check off my list was finally conquered in an early morning solitude and in a stunningly sunny weather. I would love to be back. This beach immediately made my list of the top 10 best beaches that I have been to.

CINNAMON BAY

DSC_0103 Longer but less impressive than Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay is worth a visit too.

DSC_0082The sand here was white too but not as fine as the one in Trunk Bay and the water was invitingly clear.

DSC_0092This is where our daughter had her first saltwater dip.

DSC_0067We left before sunset as we were told that it would be hard to get taxis after 6 p.m. We surely missed the highly-acclaimed Maho Bay Beach just a few miles from Cinnamon Bay but we promised to be back to visit it.

FOOD

DSC_0116During our stay at St. John, we only had one dining experience outside the Westin St. John and it was at the highly recommended Morgan’s Mango. The famous place is a neo-Caribbean restaurant with West Indian and Latin twist.

DSC_0121We ordered the celebrated grilled Caribbean lobster served with sweet plantains, black beans and seasoned rice with the usual butter-lemon sauce. Honestly, Maine lobster is still juicier (and probably the best) but this one is good enough!

DSC_0115This seafood soup made my day. It’s made of shrimps, mussels and squid with quinoa in seafood broth. Excellent!

seafood paellaThe seafood paella also captivated our taste buds! The Latin kick created that different twist!

GETTING AROUND ST. JOHN

DSC_1079There are only two main options how to get around St. John.  One is to rent one of those reliable Jeeps. Please take note that you would drive at the other side of the road opposite of the U.S. experience.

DSC_0056The other option would be the island taxis that abound everywhere.  These are non-aircon cars that can take up to 20 passengers.

DSC_0113Shown here is my wife and our daughter as we were about to leave Cinnamon Bay using an island taxi.

IMG_5242One of the most breathtaking views that you can have as you travel around St. John is Cruz Bay.  We saw many tourists pending time just looking at the beautiful scenery.

image8Truly, this has been one of my family’s most memorable Caribbean experiences.  Swaying palm trees, gorgeous beaches, sumptuous food, friendly people and laid back atmosphere. Ah, paradise!  Virgin Islands, we will keep on coming back!

17
Mar
17

Morocco: The Ruins of Volubilis


After spending days in the World Heritage Site of the greatly preserved medieval city of Fez and touring the blue city of Chefchaouen for a day, we were on our way to exciting Marrakesh with a stop in Casablanca. Volubilis and Meknes can both be visited along the way from Fez to Casablanca so we suddenly decided to spend an entire day in these two magnificent places. We rented a car and hired a driver during our entire stay in Morocco so even last minute decisions like this could be easily accommodated.

VOLUBILIS

DSC_0270About one and half hour drive from Fez is the spectacular, partly excavated Berber and Roman city of Volubilis. The archaeological site overlooks a rolling fertile plain and the surrounding verdant greens can make one say he is in Italy instead of Morocco.

DSC_0348There is a ticket booth at the entrance and upon entering the sprawling 42-hectare complex there is a newly constructed structure that houses the restrooms and some prototypes of architectural columns during different eras. One should make sure to use the restrooms first and bring plenty of water or any liquid as it will be a long and arduous walk especially during noontime under the searing heat of the Moroccan sun.

DSC_0352As we walked up the hilly path into the main site, we initially caught a glimpse of some of the ruins.

 

 

DSC_0347The two public buildings readily visible at the center of the city are what remains of the basilica and the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

DSC_0345Now with only one side largely intact this is considered one of the finest basilicas in Africa.

 

 

DSC_0278The basilica was used for the administration of justice and the governance of the city.

 

 

DSC_0335The outer wall of the basilica, which is faced with columns, overlooks the forum where markets were held.

 

 

DSC_0336The forum fronting the basilica used to have statues of emperors and local dignitaries but now all that remains is the pedestal.

 

 

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DSC_0338Exterior of the basilica.

 

 

CSC_0297Interior of the basilica at Volubilis.

 

 

DSC_0337Just behind the basilica is the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

CSC_0283The layout of the temple seems unusual and it has been said that it was built on top of an existing shrine.  Nobody and nothing could confirm that.

 

 

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DSC_0343The temple was dedicated o the trinity of Roman gods: Juno, Jupiter and Minerva.

 

 

ARCHOnward, we found the Arch of Caracalla, one of Volubilis’ most distinctive landmarks.

 

 

CSC_0295It was built in 217 A.D. by the town council in honour of Emperor Carcalla (an African) and his mother Julia Domna as a way of thanking them for bestowing upon citizens of Roman provinces the Roman citizenship and eventually tax exemption. Sadly, by the time the arch was finished, Caracalla and Julia had been murdered.

CSC_0328 The triumphal arch marks the end of the city’s main street on one side and beyond that leads to fertile rolling green plains.

 

 

DSC_0293Next along, the House of Columns is so named because of the columns arranged in a circle around the interior court – note their differing styles, which include spirals.

 

 

DSC_0303More columns. We were actually a bit exhausted at this point and we stopped every now and then where there was some sort of a shade from the fierce sun and sipped the refreshing water and sugar-laden coke (blame my wife!) that we brought with us.

DSC_0305Next are the fine town houses with impressive mosaic floors that were built during the first and second century AD as the city grew and prospered.  The city’s wealth was derived mainly from olive growing business that until now is widespread in most parts of Morocco.

DSC_0306Although much of the city’s structures were destroyed by previous earthquakes, especially the one in the 18th century and then looted by Moroccan rulers seeking for stones to be used in building nearby Meknes, the mosaics remained intact.

 

 

CSC_0311From the Arch of Caracalla, the city’s main street, Decumanus Maximus, stretches up the slope to the northeast.

 

 

DSC_0307Going to the other end of the city’s main street  would lead to the small Tingis gate at the far end of the decumanus.

 

 

DSC_0323Pillars lining up one side of the city’s main street lead to small Tingis gate.

 

 

DSC_0315This part of the city was the last part of the ruins of Volubilis that we checked.

DSC_0320In 1997, the Archaeological Site of Volubilis was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding universal value as a property of the humankind. It is indeed Morocco’s best-preserved archaeological site!

14
Mar
17

Morocco: The Blue City of Chaouen


Chefchaouen or simply Chaouen is Morocco’s stunning ‘Blue City’. Tucked away in Africa’s northernmost mountain range, the Rif Mountains, the otherworldly escape has the striking powder-blue buildings that mirror the usually cloudless Moroccan sky. The color choice was influenced by religious rather than artistic reasons. The Jews believed that by dyeing thread with an ancient natural blue dye and weaving it into prayer shawls, they would be reminded of God’s power. This tradition lives on in the regularly repainted blue buildings. Chaouen is currently a rich cultural combination of Berber tribes people, Jews and Muslims, together with descendants of the Moorish exiles from Spain who have lived there since the 1400s.

DSC_0089Chaouen is about three hours drive from Fez where we were based. We decided to spend a day tour in the “blue city” with a rented car and a hired driver based in Fez.

DSC_0091The three-hour journey took us back to the scenery of the medieval ages when camels were used as the main mode of transportation. A lone standing blue door along the main highway signaled us that we have finally entered the blue city.

DSC_0102A breathtaking view of the blue city suddenly emerged as we started to descend to the city center.

CHA2Oh yeah we definitely had to stop for that classic Chaouen shot!

CHA1Our driver was busy parking our car quite far from the lookout point as the parking rules were very strict so my wife and I took turns to have each of our photos taken.

CHA3Bienvenue a Bleuville!

DSC_0230Blue-colored cars, blue-painted buildings everywhere!

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DSC_0233Almost all buildings were painted with a palette of blue.

DSC_0120Any striking color would come alive amidst the blue and white combination of the surroundings.

DSC_0218Our tour started from Chaouen’s main square.

DSC_0155We started traversing Chaouen’s maze-like, winding alleys.

DSC_0162Every corner at every turn enticed me to click my camera.

DSC_0198I could not stop taking photos of those blue doors and windows.

DSC_0196The hues of blue still followed us, naturally.

CHA5Here I am just so glad to be in the blue city.

CSC_0186Here are more photos of me and my wife showcasing the inner part of the blue city.

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DSC_0133Those maze-like alleys were a challenge to our memories.

DSC_0163Next is the colorful scenery of Chaouen’s incredible street shops!

DSC_0219DSC_0220Leather and weaving workshops line Chaouen’s steep cobbled lanes.

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DSC_0205DSC_0197DSC_0200DSC_0202DSC_0190DSC_0191Dyes anyone?

DSC_0192Metal crafts!

DSC_0164It was a different experience roaming around the street shops.

DSC_0178We finally stopped to have our late lunch at one of the street side restaurants near the square with a colorful background and cozy ambiance.

DSC_0180DSC_0181Dining in Chaouen is incredibly inexpensive and a sure treat to the taste buds.

CHEFThe incredible main dish of fried fresh fish, probably from the coastal cities of east Morocco, satisfied our hungry stomachs.  I am a certified fish lover so I have stamped this fishy experience as one of my best.

DSC_0207DSC_0215As we prepared to leave Chaouen, my wife and I both had our parting shots in the blue city.

DSC_0124Oh wait, there is a bit of red in the blue city.  In the shady main square of Uta el Hammam is the red-walled casbah, a 15th-century fortress and dungeon with ethnographic and art exhibits. Be sure to explore it.

If you have been to Morocco’s blue city, what are your fondest memories there?  If you have not been there, what makes you want to go there?

08
Mar
17

Morocco: The Red City of Marrakesh


North central Morocco was where we have been based for the last few days touring the medieval city of Fez and nearby Chefchaouen, Meknes and Volubilis and we were mesmerized by each city’s unique character. To cap our Moroccan holiday, our last destination and our point of exit would be Marrakesh. We hired the same travel guide that took us around north central Morocco for our road trip to Marrakesh stopping for a night in steamy Casablanca. If Chefchaouen evokes the shade of blue, if Fez sparkles gold and if Casablanca emits its polluted gray, Marrakesh surely explodes brightly in red.

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We entered Marrakesh on a stunningly sunny day and we immediately understood why it is called the “Red City”. Almost every building we saw were built using the signature red bricks.

 

 

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Be it government or private buildings………

 

 

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…..the red bricks were a construction staple.

 

 

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It was red all over.

 

 

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Okay, I am exaggerating.  Probably except for the Royal Theater pictured here and a few other buildings, everything we saw were made of red bricks.

 

 

THE MOGADOR PALACE AGDAL

With so many excellent choices of hotels and riads in Marrakesh, from the ultra opulent to the less swanky, the Mogador Palace Agdal was our choice as base.  It is a very affordable yet a seemingly palatial choice.  This hotel is located in the center of the new tourist zone, and faces the Atlas Mountains, the ancient wall of the Royal Palace and Marrakesh’s Gardens of Agdal.

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One of the reasons we booked this hotel was its elaborately-decorated and exquisite lobby where we were welcomed with Moroccan tea and sweets. [photo of the lobby courtesy of hotel]

 

 

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Considering the vast layout of the hotel comprising of 750 rooms spread out in a sprawling complex,  we found it quite a long but interesting walk from the lobby to our room passing through intricately-designed hallways.

 

 

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Another reason we chose this hotel was its stunning pool views. We liked best the hotel room balcony overlooking  the pool.

 

 

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Yes, we had this amazing view from our room!

 

 

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We spent some time in and around the pool.

 

 

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My wife and I were actually 32 weeks pregnant so in a way our activities in Morocco were quite limited. In Marrakesh, our last leg of the tour, we were already content taking our selfie in this magnificent hotel by wrapping my DSRL’s strap around a palm tree and voila, we had our first wedding anniversary memoir. I stopped carrying my heavy professional camera stand a few years back.

 

 

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Here are more photos at the pool side.

 

 

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Myself at the amazing poolside.

 

 

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Another shot of myself at the amazing poolside.

 

 

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Relaxing at the hotel pool side feasting on some local food is one of the more relaxing activities we had in the red city.

 

 

JEMAA EL FNAA, THE MAIN SQUARE

One of the best things to do in Marrakesh is to experience the frenzy at its main square, Jemaa El Fnaa, from sunset to late.  You can still visit it during the day and there would be restaurants and other establishments that would be open but the square would be mostly empty.

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We arrived at the square less than an hour before sunset and the crowd was starting to fill in the huge square.

 

 

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We thought this would be an experience like we never had before.

 

 

 

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The Marrakesh International Film Festival was also ongoing and some activities in the square were related to the festival.

 

 

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We took selfies at the square while we waited for the sunset.

 

 

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As we watched one of the shows pictured, there would be someone who would go around with the tip box who would easily spot visitors and acknowledge their presence and then nicely but persistently ask for tips in return.

 

 

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Games abound and so do musical performances and acrobatics!

 

 

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As the sun had set for the day, the fruit stands and food kiosks started to entice both locals and visitors.

 

 

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Food anyone?

 

 

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When we left the square, it was really filled with a crazy combination of locals and tourists.  Many are saying that Jemaa El Fnaa is the happiest place in Morocco!

 

OTHER THINGS TO DO

 

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Other activities that are interesting to do in Marrakesh are camel trekking at the city’s palm grove or…….

 

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….visiting the newest mall in the area, Menara Mall, to rub shoulders with mostly locals which we did on our last day in Marrakesh or…….

 

 

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…..checking out if you know someone who is visiting the city too!  Through Facebook we learned that a friend from Portugal whom I previously met in the Philippines as we traveled to Palawan was staying just next to our hotel and we visited her and her boyfriend from Ireland. The world is indeed small.

 

 

 

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Surely, our stay in Marrakesh was limited and we would have loved to venture further to Essaouira too or come back again when the Atlas Mountains would be capped by snow.  As our Norwegian flight took off to bring us back to Oslo, we looked down and saw the red city (yes, fiery red) for one last time. We promised we would be back in a different time and in a different season.

 

 

06
Jul
16

Morocco: Medieval Fez


IMG_2038Arriving into Fez, Morocco from Barcelona, Spain was exhilarating with stunning top views of the Rif Mountains and its surrounding lakes.

 

 

IMG_2046The shadow of the Ryanair plane as we were about to land in Fez airport was so haunting against the nicely lined up olive trees.

 

WHERE WE STAYED

IMG_2054We were met at the airport by Mr. Abdel, whom we booked to be our guide and driver during our entire stay in Morocco (except until after he had sent us off to Marrakesh).  He brought us to the riad we booked called, Riad Rcif.

 

 

DSC_0964DSC_0967We were welcomed by the owner himself Mr. Hasish (not pictured) with complimentary Moroccan tea and sweets made by his mother.

 

 

IMG_2068This was the view of the receiving area/restaurant from the third floor of the riad.

 

 

IMG_2079Welcome to Morocco!

 

 

IMG_2074After a quick rest, we decided to have our lunch in the riad before we ventured into a city tour.

 

 

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We did the right thing! The food was sumptuous!

 

 

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This is Moroccan food at its best.  This truly stamped Riad Rcif as one of the best, if not the best restaurant in Fez. In my entire stay in Morocco the food here was the best I have tasted.

 

 

DSC_0027And on to our room.  My wife was 35 weeks pregnant and I failed to verify that the riad did not have an elevator so we had to walk 3 stories up to our room. We just considered it as an exercise and we found it worthwhile as it is the only room with stained glass windows and views of the city.

 

DSC_0036Could have I asked for a nicer bed?

 

DSC_0977There was a tiny nook with a small table and a couple of chairs.

 

DSC_0030 DSC_0029The bathroom gave us the experience of  medieval times.

 

 

image3Finally, up at the penthouse of Riad Rcif one can have the view of a part of the old walled city.

 

THE WORLD-RENOWNED POTTERY OF FEZ

DSC_1035As one of the city tour stops, our guide brought us to the famous pottery in Fez which is the biggest in Morocco.

 

 

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We were oriented on the entire process of ancient pottery.

 

 

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We were also briefed on how the intricate designs are prepared and meticulously carved out and put together.

 

 

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These are some of the outputs from the same pottery factory that are exported to all parts of the world.

 

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We also toured the area of those painting the designs on the ceramics.

 

 

Here are some of the the colorful finished products being sold inside the factory.

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We were so enticed we bought some to be brought back to the U.S.

 

 

MORE OF FEZ’S AMAZING CRAFTS

DSC_1056We were whisked off to a metal crafts store that’s selling magnificent metal lamps…..

 

 

DSC_1053….gleaming copper plates……

 

 

DSC_1052….with demonstrations of how intricate designs are etched on the plates….

 

 

DSC_1064…Berber jewelry…

 

DSC_1062….even ultra expensive dining set made of camel bones.

 

 

 

MORE BEAUTIFUL SITES AROUND FEZ

image2This is the area where we would be dropped off by our driver and picked up by the hotel staff to traverse the winding alleys of the old walled city as it is only accessible by foot and donkey. Somewhere up there is Riad Rcif, our base in Fez.

 

 

image1Yes, donkeys abound, nicely blending with modern cars and they are real mode of transportation mostly in the northern and eastern part of Morocco.

 

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Another beautiful place we visited was the Army Palace overlooking Fez.

 

 

DSC_1014At the mountain summit is a small palatial compound composed of just one squarish structure guarded by armed men.

 

 

DSC_1009 DSC_1010The sweeping views of Fez before sunset were overwhelming.  Yes a  walled city lies below with its ancient culture well preserved.

 

 

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We were not accompanied by our tour guide as we roamed around the palace and stopped at the lookout so we had to take a selfie instead as we were the only ones at the top as it was late afternoon already.

 

 

12314005_10208193219496769_8379035391630529412_nNext, the king’s palace was a sight to behold even from outside!

 

 

 

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DSC_1016More of the gates of Fez.

 

 

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DSC_1015And its walls.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0008As the sun went down the golden effect it had was captured on the city wall.

 

 

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We then visited a night market that was starting to come alive at twilight.

 

 

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DSC_1070The dramatic and imposing Blue Gate was one of the highlights of our tour of Fez.

 

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Our tour guide and driver, Abdel, also brought us to Fez’s version of the Champs Elysees.

 

 

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Here are some shots of the narrow, ascending and descending maze of alleys inside the  old walled city only accessible on foot and donkeys.

 

 

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Surely, Fez gave me and my beautiful wife a unique experience.

 

 

 




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