Hot! Havana For New Year’s Eve

So tantalizing, our tattered island nation neighbor … Former tropical playground, Cuba is still Communist, still under a U.S. economic embargo and still off-limits to American vacationers.  It is still illegal for an American to hop on a plane and puddle-jump the 93 miles of shark-infested waters. However, travel restrictions under Obama have loosened up and a vast array of choice small-group, purpose-oriented trips is now available to those with a yen to see, hear, taste and feel the reality of Cuba today.

Just don’t try to bring home any of those legendary cigars….

Thanks not only to its tantalizing forbidden fruit feature, Cuba is a sexy place.  The island is a bubbling stew of many cultures that throbs with a distinctly African rhythm.  The air is, honestly, filled with music day and night.

It is Transition Time folks, and Cuba is hot.

Licenses to travel there are being scooped up and stockpiled by travel companies as quickly as they are issued (actually not that fast.)  So although it takes plenty of paperwork and complex planning to get a license for Cuba travel, it is doable.

And the bandwagon is filling up!  Many well-established tour companies have  plowed through the paperwork to offer new trips. Trips are centered on a theme or an accompanying expert, e.g., photography, painting, music, writing, and dance.  Check out Insight Cuba, GeoEx, Road Scholar (“Shalom Cuba” for Jewish heritage) ,Globus, National Geographic Expeditions, Cross-Cultural Journey Foundation and many museums, great and small: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian, Corcoran, and on.

Better yet: train the spotlight to pierce the salsa hubbub of offerings and focus on Temma Ecker, an educator and travel expert who established her boutique Chicago-based firm, “Journeys of the Mind,” over 20 years ago.

Depart Miami with Temma on December 27, 2013 for a seven-night adventure, five in Havana and two in the movie-set stunning seaside city of Cienfuegos and colonial Trinidad.  Ring in the new year in high spirits right on the dramatic steps of the historic Cathedral Square in Havana’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tables will be set up for dinner and a Tropicana-style midnight show under the stars. Before and after, Temma will lead you into neighborhood street parties. Attend, too, a private concert in the gorgeous National Museum and Decorative Arts garden, visit an organic farm, various museums, art galleries, meeting and greeting the locals as you go.

Temma says, “Cuba has an important story to tell inquisitive travelers:
how a marginalized society has lifted itself up out of adversity with resourcefulness, talent, charm, and dignity.”

Very well-priced at $4375 which includes the special visa fee and mandatory insurance. For more on New Year’s Eve in Cuba call her directly at 708-383-8739.






Forbidden Fruit

The Brigitte Bardot of the Caribbean, Cuba too has been ravaged by time and neglect but still has great bones. Even 60 years after the revolution, traces of the gorgeous playground of old Cuba still remain and you can still see glimpses of the extraordinary, ravishing beauty this island once was. So quick! Try to get there now as the restrictions are lessening, and before the invasion of McDonald’s.

So close, and yet so far. Cuba, most pleasantly and charmingly, is still an e-free zone (no cells, almost no WiFi.)

This is the island, after all, that my travel hero, Anthony Bourdain, referred to as a “magnet for bad behavior.” Love it. And for the Che-obsessed, this is ground zero. His heartbreak handsome face, framed by black curls and a beret, is plastered on every wall and peso.

Old Havana, now a UNESCO Heritage site, is paradise for photographers and time-capsule collectors although erosion, corrosion and poverty have all taken their toll.

So what’s left to see? Plenty! Old Oldsmobiles and those Chevies of the levies still cruise the streets, witchy women wear colorful turbans, and mafia ghosts haunt the old Hotel Nacional … Hot and humid, Afro-inflected salsa music pumped into the streets makes everyone feel like dancin’. You can ride in pedaled or 3-wheeler coco taxies, smoke really good cigars, see Hemmingway’s cute little black Royal typewriter, slug down some second-rate mojitos. Walk the long arc of the iconic “malecon,” the low sea wall framed by the skeletal facades of lavish homes of the formerly rich and famous. Eviscerated elegance. Hide from the hot sun under tall royal palm trees, root through the flea markets for local memorabilia, inspect 3-400 year old fortresses. And of course you will have to “walk the walk” as the one-person-wide Old Havana sidewalks require an off again-on again two-step. You will meet the hearty Cuban people who can apparently survive anything. And when it rains, believe me, it pours and the rain is fun. The Habaneros flee their small crowded apartments to take showers in the streets.

And make sure your itinerary includes two UNESCO must-see detours: the architecturally astounding city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast, with its wide streets and perfectly preserved 19th century Neo-classical pastel buildings … a ready-made movie set and birthplace of former Latin superstar 1950’s singer Benny Moré. Stop two: the well-preserved colonial city of Trinidad, where little colorful single-storey homes and wrought-iron window grills abut the skinny and bumpy old cobblestone roads.

To enter Cuba, you need a special license (complex travel rules) and a small “purposeful” culture-oriented group, so don’t even consider winging it illegally through Mexico, Europe or Canada. If you do not join National Geographic or Metropolitan Museum of Art or any of the other new and expensive tours, save money and cobble together your own little group. Here are some basic, experienced handlers who will deal with the nuts and bolts for you:

  • My trip (direct from JFK!) was beautifully organized by Myriam Castillo of TPH-Project Services, LLC Phone: (212) 352-8012.
  • Steve Rupert’s for quickies in and out of Tampa, Fla.
  • NY-based division of Cross-Cultural Solutions: or phone 800-450-2822
  • Marazul Charters has offices in Miami and NJ. or phone (201) 319-1054
  • Benita Lubic, President of Transeair Travel in Washington, DC has special contacts with the Jewish communities there. Phone: 202-362-6100

Choo Choo Overview

Train travel all over the world is almost limitless, and there is something mysteriously alluring with a whiff of romance (or at least foreign intrigue) in the puff of a train. Some are expensive and luxurious, like rolling, well-appointed 5-star hotels with exceptional staffs and food, but many are basic and good choices for the budget-minded. In addition to saving the cost of hotels, overnight trains deliver the thrill of waking up in a new city or even a new country.


Colossally fascinating and endlessly-intriguing, is the cryptic name for the website for train travel throughout the world. Get schedules, costs, connections, and every inch of train travel in Europe including such off-the-beaten tracks as those in Macedonia, Cyprus, Andorra, and Belarus AND onward into Iran, Cambodia, and even Cuba (the Ferrocarriles de Cuba. which offers no official website and no toilet paper.)  Tap into this site and run the risk of getting lost in it!

The Good Web Guide UK says “…has all the mystery of  a Le Carre epic. Who is this mysterious man who always books Seat 61 on the Eurostar and why has he set up a site devoted entirely to world rail travel? His name’s Mark Smith and he is passionate about long-distance rail travel….”

Alaska: For mesmerizing, non-stop beauty, check out the award-winning upper-deck domed window cars of the Denali Star during the 12-hour trip between Fairbanks and Anchorage.

The Alps: Rocky Mountains Highs

In Switzerland, the Rhaetian Railway offers the highest rails in the Alps: the Albula and Bernina lines which are stellar examples of technical, architectural and environmental brilliance. In the northwest, the Albula pass wends through 42 tunnels and over 144 viaducts and bridges. The Bernina train “sails” through 13 tunnels and over 52 viaducts and bridges. And the gorgeous (usually snowy) area between Thusis, rich in forests, rivers, glaciers and gorges, and the tiny town of Tirano in northern Italy has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Click:

P.S. Don’t forget the train trip between Switzerland’s two top ski resorts, St. Moritz and Zermatt, is simply a glorious 7-hour whiteout ride on the Glacier Express. Click:

From Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, the Ghan crosses the spectacular transcontinental heart of Australia, north to south, in a 48-hour one-way ride with two nights on board.

Although many trains stop running during their freezing winters, others chug along splendidly through great drifts, mounds and mountains of ice and snow.

Out west, the award-winning Rocky Mountaineer toot-toots through the Canadian Rockies on a variety of wintry routes. Phone 877-460-3200.

In Eastern Canada, look into the Agawa Canyon Snow Train which starts in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario – for a 4-hour, 114-mile rail cruise through rugged snowscapes and “diamonds of ice,” wildly colorful fall foliage as per season; chug 500 feet down over 10 miles to the floor of the billion-year old Agawa Canyon. To know more, phone 800-242-9287 or

VIA Rail operates about 480 trains per week over a vast 9,000-mile network that spans and links all of Canada. This is huge. Excellent website makes it easy to navigate their fascinating network.

India anyone?  The royally luxurious Deccan Odyssey departs from Mumbai and visits towns and villages all along the gorgeous coastline of the Arabian Sea for 8 days, including hottest beach spot on the subcontinent, the intensely sensual sandy city of Goa.

…and stay tuned for more…