So off on our next adventure. I decided that while Cuba and New Zealand are actually two separate trips, with different participants, it made sense to just write them as one journal. After all there is only 3 days in between. Just enough time to do some laundry, remove what I don’t need for NZ out of the suitcase and reorganize my stuff.
Gail and I decided that with such a short time in-between and flying in Canada in the winter it was best to pack as if we were heading directly to NZ from Cuba. After all we could be stranded in Calgary for a few days. It does mean we have way more then we need for Cuba but as they are both warm to hot destinations this time of year the cross over is significant.
Cuba is the family trip in lieu of Christmas presents. Leslie and Kelly, their kids, spouses and/or significant others are all going. Gail, myself and my brother David are tagging along to raise the average age. Sadly, my sister Shannon and her husband Cam choose not to come but we at least still had Christmas Eve and Day before we headed out on the 28th.
Have to say it is a bit weird to not have presents under the tree but certainly made for a lot less stressful December. No aimlessly wandering the mall trying to find something for people who have all they need.
We head out to the Kelowna airport from Vernon at 4 pm on the 28th for an overnight in Calgary. My brother David and Gail are meeting us in Calgary from Vancouver and our planes are scheduled to land within 15 minutes of each other. The drive to the airport gets a bit harrowing as it has been snowing all day and the closer, we get to the airport the worse it gets. Leslie must comment ‘hope we get out’ fifty times that day. Okay a bit of an exaggeration but it seemed like that and I finally had to tell her stop …we don’t need the bad karma.
While we arrive in plenty of time, by the time we finish dinner at the White Spot it is fime to board. After a bit of a delay for de-icing we are on our way. The flight is uneventful till about 200 ft off the Calgary runway where there is a lot of turbulence. A cold stand outside for almost ½ hour for the shuttle and we arrive at our airport hotel.
My niece Nicole and partner Logan, my nephew Drew and his partner Daniella have already checked in and gone to bed. The rest of us drop our bags and head back down to the lobby, bottle of wine in hand. Got to start the party now ...we are on Vacay! Drew gets up and joins us. It is great to see him as it has been a long time with him working in Rocky Mountain House now.
Time for bed, the shuttle comes at 6:30 am back to the airport for our direct flight to Varadero. As with every travel day they are long. It is a 5 ½ hr flight but there is the 3-hour time change. By the time we have our bags, exchanged Canadian $ for Cuban CUCs it is 6 pm and there is an hour drive to our resort as it is almost at the end of the peninsula that is the area of Varadero and all the Cuban beach resorts.
We are at the Iberostar Playa Alameda and as it is dark when we arrive hard to know what it all looks like. We decide to just drop the bags and head down for a cocktail before dinner, which is a buffet tonight. Our room is spacious but a little tired. Fortunately, it is clean, the beds comfy, the rooms large and close to everything. The grounds are neat and lush. Overall first impressions are pretty good.
Ultimately everyone comes down to the terrace bar, and we head into the buffet. Nicole and Logan have gone ahead as they are starved. We secure a few tables and get some much-needed nourishment. The food as is expected, good but not great. We manage to find something that works and now feel a lot better. It has been a long time since breakfast.
Tonight, is Saturday and while we sit outside in the lobby bar enjoying the warmth with a nice breeze the kids head to the beach. This is ‘Foam Party’ night and I have no desire to get covered in foam. Eventually Leslie and Kelly head down to take a look. ‘They be back in five minutes so order them a drink’. At least a half hour later they are back, drinks in hand, telling us we have to come see this.
The beach is just 5-minute walk at the other end of the resort and when we arrive we see all kinds of people dancing on the beach amongst at least 2 feet of foam. Nathan, Kelly’s son, has of course dove in when he first arrived and now has gone back to shower and change, being soaking wet and covered in detergent!
It is all pretty funny and as the breeze picks up off the sea you find yourself dodging big clouds of foam. The music is rocking, and all the kids are out dancing. As there is 12 of us and we need to ensure we have everyone we number off. Starting with Gail as #1, as the oldest, and ending with Nathan as #12.
We suddenly realize that 1 through 5 are standing up off the beach, and 6 through 12 are down on the beach dancing. Time to join them and enjoy the beautiful beach scenery and the sand in your feet but off to the side of the foam as it is pretty mucky there. Of course, the cocktails are flowing and Logan is going to easily be the MVP tonight. This I find out signifies the one who is the drunkest. Needless to say, the next day he was more of a teetotaller than a beer drinker.
Everyone is having a blast and Leslie is thrilled. Exactly what she wanted. David of course comes and goes and by the next morning and afternoon he knows almost everyone in the resort by name. He has the gift the gab and has no problem walking up to complete strangers, sharing his life story and welcoming them as new friends.
We will find throughout the week that almost every night a new set of people are joining our group for pre-dinner cocktails.
The next day, our first full one, has some very weary folks. Almost all the kids and Leslie and Kelly do not get up in time for breakfast and so are forced to grab something at the snack bar. Oh, the evils of an all inclusive!
We have to book our speciality dinners at 9 this am but when Gail and I get there at 8:50 the line up is 25 deep. But there is David, sitting at the table … second in line. We find out New Year’s dinner speciality need to be booked by the buffet, so I head off in that direction and Gail and David book the rest.
Today is beach and pool day, nothing to do. Gail and I go poolside with our e-readers to avoid sand in every crevasse, the others head down to the beach. We do go check out the beach and is jam packed. Loungers as far as the eye can see. The breeze is lovely and while it very hot it doesn’t seem so, Will have to watch the colour of the skin and make sure to continue to lather up.
It is pretty uneventful day … by the afternoon the gang has come up from the beach and joined us poolside. The pool water is a bit brisk at first but after the initial shock it is perfectly refreshing. The wind picks up in the afternoon, enough again to keep you cool in the 29+ degree heat.
Back to shower and change and meet for cocktails. Nicole and Logan head to the buffet as they are hungry and the other 10 of us follow shortly after and they accommodate us with a big table. Food is okay but may be good way to offset the wine from a weight perspective.
Tonight we all head to the theatre of the show which is 80’s night. Having said that after the first 4 or 5 songs I think it was pretty much whatever. The singers and band are very good and so it is all enjoyable. After the show we hang by the outdoor patio bar off the theatre. After last nights late night, we head off leaving the younger ones off to the disco or D-floor as Nick is calling it. Tomorrow is an early day.
We are off after breakfast to Havana which is about 2 hours away about 150 km. I had pre-booked 3 convertible collector cars figuring it would be fun to head into Havana in 1950’s style for our tour. They do not disappoint we have 3 beauties. Gail, Drew, Daniella and I hop into the 1959 25th Anniversary Edition Dodge with our driver Michael. Turns out there are only 2 of these cars in all of Cuba.
The other two are a Belair and a Buick Special, both in pink. Our guide is Mady and he hops between cars all day. It is a long drive, but the sun is shining and the wind is in our face. Michael is the head driver and he makes sure we are the number 1 car. Letting the others slip by then racing past them honking our horn. Along route he serenades us occasionally and when he sings Guantanamera and Gail and I join in on the chorus.
First stop the town of Mazandas or the city of bridges. There are 27 of them over 3 rivers. The name of the town comes from the word Massacre, symbolizing all the native Indians killed by Vasquez and the Spanish Armada. As the Indians took to their canoes to escape out into the bay, the ships sat in wait and fired their cannons killing them all. Today there are 4 Spanish Galloons from the 17th century sunk in the bay.
The town is also famous for its week-long song and dance festival at the local theatre, built by an Italian and has incredible acoustics.
Along route Mady gives us tittle tidbits of information and Cuban folklore. Everywhere you see horse drawn carts, or the cheapest Ferraris. There are only 8 professors of Rum in Cuban and it is a 15-year course of study. He lets us know not to buy cigars at the beach as they are typically made out of banana leaves. And finally, that the Cubans have their own 3 Musketeers; rum, cigars and coffee.
Our next stop is the highest bridge with a fantastic view of the hills on one side and the sea on the other. This is the Mother-in-Law bridge and folklore suggests that you push her off here. We stop for the view and Pina Colada made in the coconut and you just help yourself to the rum. David, of course, has more than his share.
From here we have another hour plus into Havana, joined by the many vultures that swirl around over heads. Our first stop is the massive main cemetery, with huge tombs all in various types of marble. Dating back to 172. It has been declared an UNESCO site. It is impressive to say the least and Mady takes us to a few of the famous tombs.
We enter via a giant arch, called the Door of Peace and walk down one of 8 roads that lead off the centre Catholic church. Here the wealthy and famous are entombed; generals who led the Cuban soldiers in one of the revolutions, Ibrahim Ferret, a famous Grammy Award winning singer and owner of the infamous Buena Vista Social Club and Miguel de Mendoza who was so wealthy in his day that he was considered important but really did nothing.
The largest and most impressive is monument built for 7 firefighters that died on May 17. 1800 in a massive fire. Today however it is symbolic for all firefighters.
The most popular is the Miracle Woman tomb. The legend goes that a couple, much like Romeo and Juliet, Amelia and Eduardo were very much in love. Unfortunately, Amelia and her baby died in childbirth in 1901. In this cemetery after 2 years you are to take remains away to make space for others. When she was buried the baby was placed between her legs to symbolize the point of birth and that of death. When Eduardo returned, they were both still intact except the baby had moved from between legs into her arms.
Today people come from far and wide to their tomb to ask for a miracle. They all follow the same ritual, first they knock on the lid of grave, they ask for their miracle, then they touch statue and leave flowers. They never turn their back to the tomb, so they walk away facing it. Over .2000 a day come, while we were there one guy knocks 39 times before being told to stop. It is all very emotional.
The last one we visit is the Holocaust monument, it was built by a family that had escaped from a prisoner of war camp. When doing so they managed to take some 30 soaps made from bodies of exterminated Jews. Those soaps are the only thing in the tomb. People leave rocks instead of flowers as this is meant to be more solemn than a happy occasion.
Our next stop is Revolution square. One end is atower, the highest in Cuba at 140m, and if you look from the sky it looks like the start of the Cuban flag. It has the statue of Jose Martin, a poet and writer considered to be the one who promoted all the ideas for the revolution from his writings.
One building has the face of Che Guevara who came from Argentina to fight for revolution. On the other side Cienfueguo who was the next most important next to Fidel. Interesting there are no monuments to Fidel at his request and his grave in the town of his birth is non-descript.
It is lunch time and we are headed to the Buena Vista Social Club in Old Havana. From the 1940’s it was the hub for Cuban music. The lunch is really good, not cheap and the live music is too loud but nice to have a great meal in Cuba.
Finally, we do a walk in Old Havana after seeing the Capital and National Theatre both beautiful buildings we head to Army square, the oldest in Latin America. We then head down the streets and to an impressive mural along the whole wall of one of the buildings. We did not see this last time turning just a block away. Built by 5 students over 5 years it is incredibly impressive. All done with tiny stones of different colours and represent the important people of Havana history. On the opposite side to the mural is the actual building.
When we return about 7 pm that night after a long wind-blown ride home, the last 45 minutes in the dark we all agree it was an exceptional day. The front desk clerk informs Kelly that we are a first. In all the time she has been there no one as taken convertibles into Havana because of the distance and the wind in the back seat. We are Cuban pioneers.
Time to get gussied up as it is New Year’s Eve. Hard to believe. We grab cocktails and head to the Italian restaurant for the 8:30 seating. They have a live band on the deck as they set up and they are pouring bubbly, of course.
Okay, big mistake, we have given David the tickets for the speciality dinners and he has forgotten them. Back to his room only to find the key won’t work, so to the desk for a new one, still no luck. He comes back with the bad news, but I figure we may not need it. But he decides he will need a good key anyhow and heads back to reception. In the end the technician had to be called.
HERES THE PUNCHLINE … turns out all 3 times he was in the wrong building therefore the wrong door!!!
Dinner is very nice, although not sure Kelly, the fussy one, would agree. There is an antipasti buffet first, followed by pumpkin soup and then huge lobsters or steak for those not into seafood. The lobster is delicious or was that the drawn butter. But boy, I forgot how filling they get.
Dinner has 6-12 headed to get primed for midnight and 1-5 going to the patio bar, which is really a non-event. So, we head to the theatre bar and the entertainment which turn out to be a variety show right up to midnight. This is where everyone is so 1-12 are reunited long before midnight.
They are pouring bubbly in anticipation, so we dive in a head of time. Our dollar store hats, which I brought with me, are sort of perched on our heads. You get what you pay for. Champagne in hand we start the countdown. It is 2019! Hard to believe.
Hugs and kisses all around and then calls back to home. Fortunately, we know we can get everyone, even those like sister Shannon who pretends New York is midnight at home. The three-hour time difference helps.
Shortly after 1 am we are ready to pack it in but Les and Kel head to D-floor with the young set. Leslie well on her way to being tonight’s MVP. Not thinking we will see to many of them for breakfast tomorrow.
As suspected, we pretty much had breakfast to ourselves. They were serving New Year Mimosas, a nice touch and after breakfast we settle in poolside. Other then David we saw no one else till noon. Time for their breakfast burger, the only option with breakfast buffet over and lunch not open yet. Drew and Daniella try for hotdog, then pizza and then chicken fingers. All of which they are out of, and we find out later no butter.
Really telling of not just a third world country, but the relationship with the US and their inability to readily get supplies. Of course, today being a national holiday doesn’t help. We had planned to head into Veradero but figuring that everything will be closed we opt instead to go tomorrow.
After a day poolside Kelly and some of the kids head to the patio bar to play cards. I decide to shower and then join them only to find out that we have no towels. Gail had gone to the desk hours ago, but they still had not come. After two more requests they finally arrive at 6:15. Apparently a problem with the laundry. This gives us just enough time to shower, change, grab a drink and head to the beach restaurant for dinner.
Dinner is off a menu tonight and while the choices look good, the execution is suspect. The Shrimp Cocktail is more like shrimp in too much mayo. But after they stir it up with the thin slice of pineapple that it sits on it is not bad. I have a medley of fish as an appy witch is okay but cold. David, as always, complains there is not enough sauce! I swear he just eats that and not the actual protein.
Back to the patio bar and a relatively early night.
We are up somewhat early on the 2nd as we are headed into Veradero. There is a 5 CUC bus but as it stops at all the hotels and we are one of the first it apparently takes almost an hour to go the 6 km to town. We opt for 3 taxis which are 20 CUCs so works out to be the same for 4 anyhow.
We wander up the main street into the little craft markets and all buy an assortment of trinkets and trash. Gail and I continue on while the others shop and farther down decide it is time for a cervesa. It is hot with minimal breeze, so the cold beer and the shade are a welcome stop.
The plan is to meet my niece Jacqui, from Calgary, and her boyfriend Graham at the Beatles bar at 1 pm when it opens. She is actually my cousin’s daughter but calls me Auntie Jill. They find us shortly before one at the bar across the road where I wished we had stayed. It is great to see Jaq and finally meet Graham. It has been at least a year so nice surprise that they are in Cuba the same time as all of us.
The Beatles bar is as big disappointment despite what the reviews say. Other then a bronze stature of the Fab Four it has minimal atmosphere. The waiter is miserable and slow at best. And in the end, we get ripped off. Having left more then enough for the bill and a tip, although we shouldn’t have, they chase us down saying we short changed them. Not a chance. The guy must have pocketed 10 CUC before giving it to the manager. But not wanting to get in a fight we just give them 10 more. They will be getting blasted in Trip Advisor by me for sure.
Back to the pool for a couple of hours, although it has clouded over and looks like it could rain. But it is still 30 degrees. Once again, the kids go to play cards, I have a drink with Les and Kelly on their balcony and then go to shower and change.
Tonight, we are at another speciality restaurant or at least we thought. Turns out it is tomorrow so the buffet it is. While we think it is great to have a big table in the back in a small room to ourselves it turns out that is not a great service spot.
The entertainment tonight is on the patio vs the theatre and is Boogie night, so a bit disco but good and I catch up on email and the others play a big game of 31 with Brett coming out champion. Tonight, will be his MVP night and you can tell the next morning at breakfast. When it hits midnight a round of Jamieson whiskey shots are arranged and we all toast Logan on this 30th birthday.
That signals time to pack it in ... I was tired even at dinner as the late nights and wines starting to take its toil. But here we are once again heading to bed late. Nothing planned for tomorrow so time for a sleep in.
January 3rd and it is Logan’s birthday. Our usual breakfast lady is arranging for a special surprise at the buffet lunch and Gail and I join Logan and Nicole. She has done a beautiful happy birthday all in individual flower petals and unfortunately, lost in translation she has it as 35. Quickly they fix it as Logan has gone off to the restroom. In addition, they have champagne for us to enjoy.
That night we head to the ‘Romantico’ restaurant and we split so the younger 7 can sit together and the over 50 crowd is at another table. Right beside but they all are having a great time and I think it is a special birthday. More cards, drinks are the plan.
Tonight, I am not the winner but rather the loser of the loser table in the second round. Gail had already gone back so missing the embarrassment, especially when Kelly is the big winner. The kids head off to the disco with Les and Kelly and I head back to the room.
Our last day and it is Leslies’ birthday. This was one of her big excitements as we all usually disperse after Christmas and no one is there to celebrate her birthday. Gail and decide to give the snorkeling a go as it is a very calm day. The others hit the beach and manage to grab enough chairs, which has been a challenge. So many people reserving chairs ore breakfast, which is against the rules. Unfortunately it is not policed so it keeps happening.
While it takes a while to get organized, we are out on the Hobie Cat to the snorkeling area, joined by a couple from Ontario, Neil and Kim. They have been before and assure us we will enjoy. Seems weird when it is not far off shore. Unfortunately for the Hobie, but great for snorkeling, there is absolutely no wind and our guide is forced to paddle us out most of the way. Needless to say, it takes forever but well worth.
There are about 10 other boats around the reef so in the middle it is a bit crowded but once we get in the water it is fantastic. While initially there is not a lot of variety of fish, they are plentiful. Huge schools both right near the surface and down amongst the coral. We go a bit away from the crowd and now you can see more species when you look carefully into the rocks. It is a great snorkeling spot and for our 20 CUCs and an hour in the water, great value for our money.
When we get back on shore the other gang tell us they had a mantra ray go right past them off the beach. The water is calm and crystal clear. Don’t love the sand on me but a wonderful setting.
Turns out also today there is a big pig BBQ for lunch today. They have pig on the spit and a massive paella along with the usual buffet and fresh burgers. We spend a bit of time poolside and then join the others down by the beach bar for lunch and it is well worth it.
The afternoon we spend poolside and the clouds start to roll in. It is still very warm but not as sunny. Tonight, we have a cocktail patio side but the sand fleas for the first time are everywhere and by the morning we all are incredibly itchy.
We have our final dinner at the Italian restaurant and as it is Leslie’s birthday, we have her and Kelly sit with her kids and their partners. This is by far our best meal and we start with champagne. I have the cannelloni and it is fantastic. Like last night we have an issue trying to order any wine off the menu as it has changed for the New year… so the manager needs to come and give the poor wait staff permission to sell it to us.
After dinner Leslie opens her cards and Kelly asks her to read his out loud as it is funny. But as usual David as buggered off and Brett has to go find him. Once back, a little embarrassed Leslie stands up and reads the card out for everyone. She is thinking he has got them another trip for her birthday. But as she reads the personal sentiment he has written, which is beautiful, she gets teary eyed.
Then the last line … “I have a question to ask you”. Just then Kelly gets down on one knee and opens the ring box and asks her to ‘Marry him”. Screams, tears and then the answer … “of course”. No yes but I think it will do. So excited and everyone surprised.
More champagne is brought out by the staff and of course we apologize for those sitting around us trying to have a quiet dinner. Everyone understands as we hug, kiss, cry and admire the ring.
So happy for the two of them and thrilled we could be part of this great day.
Let the party begin. Tonight, we are celebrating, and I think after the stress of waiting to pop the question Kelly gets on a roll. He will definitely be MVP tonight although Daniella not far behind ….
The mad pack for most in the am … Nathan strolls in 10 minutes late but in time for the bus so no worries. It is uneventful with everyone trying to get rid of their CUCs, David even buys us beers. Of course, I find out when I get home that I have 30 CUCs or $30US in another part of my purse… so if anyone knows someone headed to Cuba will sell for as good deal.
Time for dinner and Wi-Fi in Calgary after having to go through security again as we are now on the Domestic side… don’t get it. Brett had bought a bottle of Rum at Duty Free in Cuba only to find out there is no receipt in the bag so at security his only option is to go back and check it in… for which they want $40 for an extra bag. Seriously we could buy half the Rum in Cuba for that … the guy at baggage check gets a little gift ...bet it happens all the time!!!
Back into Kelowna just before midnight and we say our goodbyes. A great trip ...so nice to spend that much quality time with the family …and yes now with the engagement we are truly all LA FAMILIA! Luv Luv