Culture, Music and Cigars in Cuba

Without visiting you cannot anticipate the allure of Cuba: it is too daring, too contradictory, and despite years of casual abandon, far too appealing. Perhaps it is the exciting history, maybe some incorrigible essence, or the unfaltering energy that echoes off walls and springs ardently from it’s people. Arrive with an open mind and get ready to slowly fall in love with Cuba.

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Visiting Cuba is almost like stepping back in time, a country currently undergoing change, but for the moment still the Cuba of our imaginations.  Beautiful, rich in history and culture, time worn but dignified, economically poor but friendly and, at times, frustrating, Cuba should always be appreciated as she is.

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Located 90 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean island nations. Neighboured by the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Haiti, Cuba covers some 44,200 miles. The diverse landscape features undulating farmland, rugged mountains, urban metropolises, charming colonial villages and some impressive white sand beaches. Cuba’s population is rich in variation, with 11.2 million residents. Despite its native roots, the most profound effects on Cuban culture are the result of European, African and North American influences.

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The island is divided into 15 provinces and one special municipality, Isla de la Juventud. Some notable areas of Cuba include rural Piñar del Rio, where tobacco farming continually adds to economic impetus. Then there is the seaside town of Santiago de Cuba, actually the country’s second largest city next to Havana and overflowing with colourful Afro-Cuban inspiration. Not to forget very colonial Trinidad, a quiet town that is a nominated UNESCO world heritage site cushioned between imposing mountains and the sparkling sea.

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Getting around Cuba is not for the faint hearted and travelling with a local guide is highly advised. The roads whilst almost empty are not always in great condition away from the main cities and there are often few sign posts along the route. Getting lost is almost inevitable but if you do happen to venture inland, lose your way and speak a little Spanish, the friendly locals will always try to help you!

The old American cars from the 50’s and 60’s are everywhere, especially in the larger towns, whilst in the countryside and poorer villages, horse and cart still seems to be the most popular mode of transport.

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In Havana let loose your imagination; stroll the oceanside Malecón boulevard and feel sea water tingle on your skin as the waves crash on the walls. You may hear guitars and voices harmonizing over a hypnotic drum rhythm or notice sunlight slanting across peeling paintwork. You will encounter tourists sporting Hemingway-esque beards and often a glimpse of Che Guevara on a billboard.

Havana Town is a must and is best seen on foot over a couple of days to experience the colonial style buildings, musicians, open-air bazaars and wonderful atmosphere.  Pop in to the Floridita Bar in Havana Town, an old haunt of Hemingway, for a refreshing Daiquiri and some live music. The rum museum is an interesting tour, remarking the history of rum-making in Cuba from sugar cane to distillery and of course there is an opportunity to sample and buy at the end of the tour.  Cigars are one of the island’s most iconic exports and during your time in the city you can visit a factory to discover how they are produced, with of course the opportunity to buy some famous Cuban cigars.

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If you’re keen on nature and want to get away from the hustle of city life, visit the Topes de Collantes nature reserve. The drive up to the park beautiful, taking you through traditional Cuban villages and up in to the Escambray Mountains. The highlight of the park is definitely the El Nicho waterfalls and the absolutely crystal clear pools; simply perfect for a refreshing dip. Do note that the climb up to the waterfall is a little steep and uneven in parts so you need to be-sure footed.

Sancti Spíritus, the colonial town of Trinidad, is definitely worth a visit. After walking the cobbled streets, with locals selling souvenirs of Cuba from front rooms converted into little shops, or visiting local attractions, you may be ready for a visit to La Canchanchara bar, where they serve the traditional drink of the same name made from rum, lime and honey.

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Santa Clara, is located in Cuba’s heartland and the site of a decisive battle of the Revolution won by Che Guevara and his contemporaries in 1958. The Plaza de la Revolución hosts Che Guevara’s monument, vast mausoleum and museum. Here you can learn all about the life of this much revered Cuban revolutionary icon.

Excellent dive sites are numerous in Cuba. A tip would be to focus on the area you want to dive rather than trying to cover multiple locations. Most notable are the Jardines de Reina, María la Gorda and the Isla de la Juventud; are all fairly isolated so good pre-planning is essential. The more sheltered south coast probably has better water clarity and more dependable weather, though the north coast, offers easy access to one of the world’s largest reefs, the choice is yours.

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A great visit is to Playa Giron, which is more famously known as the Bay of Pigs.  There is a great diving area and it is charmingly picturesque sitting on the beach soaking up the relaxed atmosphere. To see more of this underwater world, view some footage here.

Cuba has so much to offer visitors, it has something for everyone – a place to explore, enjoy, relax and experience.

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Venice – where time stands still

Venice is one of the prettiest and most fascinating places in the world. Amazingly enough it has changed very little in some six hundred years. Although it is visited by over 20 million tourists every year, this slice of paradise has truly kept hold of its romantic charm.

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Renowned for the beauty of its setting, Venice is lucky to possess several marinas located near to its historic centre and a great location to berth if you arrive by yacht. Having your own yacht it also makes it very easy to visit the numerous less visited islands within the Venetian lagoon.

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“Must do” historical places to visit in the centre include: The Doge’s Palace, which is a palace built in Venetian Gothic style, and one of the main landmarks of the city; The Piazza San Marco, the principal public square; and Saint Mark’s Basilica, the most famous of the city’s churches and one of the best known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture.…or maybe you would prefer to just relax, chill out, sip an espresso and appreciate the wonderful views at one of the many cafes and restaurants offering spectacular waterside terraces?

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It goes without saying that a mini cruise around the canals on a gondola, whilst being serenaded by a gondolier, against the stunning backdrop of Baroque buildings, is something not to be missed! If you are feeling energetic, a shopping trip could also be in order. Whether you are looking to buy some Murano glass, Burano lace, a new handbag or a carnival mask you’ll be delighted to know that you will be spoilt for choice.

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Sea awareness

heart-996157_1280The world’s oceans offer us a wealth of diverse treasures both above, on and below the water. Taking this for granted to survive alone is unfortunately no longer enough, so great thought and responsibility has to come from us in caring for our seas. The statistics uncovered can be shocking, but  this is the only way to build true awareness.

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– Already, the Earth’s reefs have declined by an unbelievable 40% worldwide, and a large proportion of those remaining are not in good condition. Coral reefs house a quarter of the ocean’s fish, so this is severe data.

– Coral reefs live only in clean, clear water, and our pollution is making it difficult for them to survive. Also, rising sea temperatures hurt the coral, making them more vulnerable to bleaching, which drains their colour and causes them to die.

– Furthermore, warmer sea temperatures are causing species to migrate to cooler areas, a transition which many creatures do not survive.

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– Additionally, we release Carbon dioxide and power plant emissions into the air. The ocean absorbs 30% of Carbon dioxide emissions, causing it to become more acidic which leads to malfunctions in fish and coral growth, and power plant emissions release toxic mercury into the air which settles in the ocean.   This mercury is slowly being absorbed by sea creatures, which means that eventually sea life could be harmful to eat. This would be serious as it currently amounts to a large majority of human-kind’s diet.

One area of debris is so bad, it has landed the title ‘the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. This ‘dump’ is situated in the North Pacific Ocean, and is actually made up of smaller patches of tiny pieces of plastic, so small they’re often not visible to the human eye, but are no less harmful to the wildlife around them.   There is a lot of speculation as to the size of this ‘patch’, many reports suggesting it is as big as Texas! Although it’s difficult to be sure, we know it is extensive and must stop growing – indeed, any size is too big and unacceptable.

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The ocean provides us with endless opportunities and excitement, discovery and relaxation, food and jobs, and most importantly, over half of the oxygen we breathe (due to oceanic plants). Surely, the very least we can do is give a little something back?

Here are few simple ways in which we can help our ocean to restore and thrive-

+ Use less disposable plastic products:

Often, disposable plastic products end up in the ocean, and this is a major cause for the destruction of wildlife, such as entangling and killing marine life. This also happens with abandoned fishing equipment- known as ‘ghost fishing’, when sea-life gets tangled in disused nets. Also, sea-life is in danger of eating micro-plastics, for example sea turtles often mistake them for jellyfish which are their favourite food, and some other species feed them to their young thinking they’re eggs, which then ruptures the young’s internal organs or causes them to starve to death from lack of nutrients.

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Therefore, an easy way to help prevent this is by reusing bags – perhaps buy a sustainable ‘Bag for Life’ for shopping and recycle when possible. Use non-disposable water-bottles: buy a funky colour, have the size and shape you wish, protect the oceans, and even protect yourself – it’s much healthier not to drink from thin, disposable plastic!

+ Be tidy at the beach:

When you leave the beach, simply taking all of your rubbish with you/disposing of it can make a huge difference to the environment. If you’re feeling really environmental, perhaps carry out your ‘good deed of the day’ by tidying up the rubbish of someone less eco-friendly, who didn’t bother.

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Support charities and organisations – get involved:

A little goes a long way. Perhaps give back to the ocean by donating to a conservation charity of your choice, or get involved with some volunteering. Look out for events such as ‘pick-up-parties’ in which you can help the environment by cleaning up the beach, but also just enjoy a day out by the sea, meeting some new people, having a chat and doing a good deed. Some time and effort is the most precious gift you can contribute:

http://www.bluemarinefoundation.com/

http://www.projectaware.org/about-movement

http://www.oceanconservancy.org/

+ Try to avoid chemical-based sun cream:

The chemicals in such sun creams can damage the ocean in a variety of ways, one of the main ones being that it elicits a virus in algae which causes it to explode. This may not seem like a big deal, but in reality, algae is a vital part of the ocean. For example, without algae, coral cannot survive.

Jersey Kids All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30 is safe for the whole family, including babies, as it is both skin and ocean friendly, using only natural products like jojoba and shea butter, as well as zinc oxide to make it sun-safe.

Sunology Natural Sunscreen For Body, SPF 50 is another favourite. It is eco-friendly and not just skin friendly but skin helpful! It contains ingredients which aid skin-health and don’t block pores.

 

And perhaps look to buy more eco-friendly products: Just a little research before purchasing products can ensure you are being environmentally friendly

+ Avoid buying items that exploit marine life:

These include coral jewellery, tortoise shell products such as hair slides, starfish ornaments, and notably shark products which can be found in cosmetics like lipsticks, leather goods, and even in pet food! So, read the labels, and choose from the huge range of products which do not include these.

+  Enjoy the ocean life with your eyes and camera only:

When swimming, snorkelling or diving, try not to disturb ocean life, as this can affect it in negative ways. Also, do not take any part of the ocean home, but leave it in its natural environment- ‘take photos not mementos!’

This is a task that we must all get involved in to make a difference and keep the ocean healthy, so that everyone can continue to enjoy it. The future of the oceans is now in our hands.

 

 

Ultimate divetime – Hawaii

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Whether you’re a seasoned scuba diver or a holiday snorkeller, Hawaii offers a wonderful world to explore under the sea.

South Kona is sheltered by the mountainous Maunaloa, making the waters on the south west side of Hawaii Island calm and clear. A perfect example of this is at beautiful Honaunau Bay, also called Two-steps. This refers to a spot on the shoreline where volcanic rock has been neatly worn away into a convenient “two-step” entry point for divers and snorkellers. An abundant variety of fish and honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) can be seen in the warm waters. Honaunau Bay is also located nearby Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park. Once a place of refuge for Hawaiian lawbreakers; this expansive historic park offers an intimate glimpse into the fascinating local culture.

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Molokini is a small, crescent shaped volcanic atoll off the South Maui coast, accessible only by yacht. The waters here offer bustling, colourful reefs, perfect for diving; in fact, they are so rich with life, the Molokini Crater was titled a State Marine Life and Bird Conservation District. Here divers can visit a sunken Carthaginian replica of a 19th century supply vessel, specifically placed to create an artificial reef for underwater creatures. It is popular with reef sharks, stingrays, countless schools of fish and even has an eel living on the bow!sea-931164

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Winding down the Amalfi Coast

amalfi-coast-862299_1920The Costiera Amalfitana offers an exceptionally picturesque stretch of coastline to stir the senses. Lying along the southern borders of the Sorrento Peninsula, the Amalfi coast is a cliff-lined headland, proudly jutting out from the mainland at the southern end of the Bay of Naples. Explore pastel-hued towns cleverly terraced into hillsides, drive corniche roads with a backdrop of verdant mountains and drink in the expansive vistas across turquoise waters.

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Drive from Salerno, enjoying amazing viewpoints of the dramatic shoreline along the weaving coastline, visit gorgeous sandy beaches (the best at Maiori) and fascinating ruins of a 1st century AD Roman villa (Minori); before heading inland towards Ravello. Considered to be one of southern Italy’s most romantic and beautiful small towns it is perched on terraced slopes adorned with lush gardens, sun-drenched corners and sensational views from its lofty setting.

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Situated off the main square, home of Ravello’s music festival concerts, The Villa Rufolo and gardens are splendid; the panoramas superlative.

Nearby, take lunch on the terrace at the exceptional Al Ristoro del Moro to enjoy exquisite local cuisine, outstanding service and a sublime view of the bay below.

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Set course to the coast on the corniche road to celebrated Amalfi, one of the world’s oldest maritime sea trade ports. Enjoy the cosmopolitan seafront setting with buzzing cafés and enticing boutiques. Culture abounds: but do not miss the Duomo di Sant’Andrea, Amalfi’s magnificent cathedral complete with 11th century byzantine bronze doors. Continue west along the corniche road where stopping at the Grotta dello Smeraldo, a charming marine cave with luminous emerald waters, is recommended. Travel on past the impressive Vallone di Furore gorge, where precipitously scenic Positano awaits you, strewn with top restaurants, sparkling hotels and kaleidoscopic villas. Journey’s end is the bustling coastal village of Sorrento, straddling the majestic cliffs, looking over the sea towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius where you can immerse yourself in a final taste of Italy’s la dolce vita.

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The Egadi Islands, Sicily

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The Egadi Islands are one the most undisturbed parts of the world, with a permanent population of only 5000 people spread out across all three islands, it is still possible to explore isolated coves and bays as well as hike along the deserted mountain paths. It is the perfect place to relax in a tranquil environment.

The three islands, Favignana, Marettimo and Levanzo are located off the coast of Trapani (western Sicily). There are a few places of interest such as the Fort of Santa Caterina on the island of Favignana, which was originally built by the Arabs as a watchtower and then was enlarged and used as a prison by the Bourbon Kings. In addition to this there is the Grotta Del Genovese on the island of Levanzo and the Grotta del Cammello on Marettimo. These are caves containing art of the Stone Age where human messages were carved into the rock using paintings of humans and animals. Barely anyone owns a car on the islands, as they are all so small it is easy to cycle around, so the islands remain unpolluted and historic and the sea water surrounding them crystal clear. So the best way to get around is by boat!

In 241BC, the Egadi Islands were the scene of an important battle at sea called the First Punic War, between the Romans and Carthaginians, where the Romans were victorious. Remains of a Punic ship can be seen in the archaeological museum in Marsala on the main land. The name of Cala Rossa on Favignana (meaning ‘Red cove’) is said to have come from the blood of Carthaginians washing ashore.

Despite the islands being low in population there are still many places to eat as you admire the stunning views across the ocean, such as Nautilus, Sotto Sale, Il Veliero and Il Giardino Nelle Cave. The waters surrounding the islands are ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving as well as fishing.

Back in Sicily there are festivals every week and mountains to explore along with public beaches scattered across the coastline and more peaceful hidden gems. During the middle ages the Normans conquered Sicily. While they were there they built cathedrals that can be seen by the public and capture one’s imagination with vaulted ceilings and mosaic floors. There is also open road racing which takes cars speeding up into the mountain roads and all across the island. It creates excitement for visitors and attracts more and more tourists.

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Big swimmers – turtles galore!

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Ancient, endearing and intelligent, observe the gentle sea turtles in the Andaman Islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are inhabited by a variety of marine cultures, but the most treasured are the sea turtles. During the winter months every year, the largest turtles in the world choose to nest here, flocking in their thousands.

Kalipur Beach in Diglipur is the only beach in the world boasting four types of sea turtle that specifically come to nest. These protected species are the Leatherback Turtle, Olive Ridley, Green Turtle and Hawksbill. From December to February they lay their eggs and local forest officials duly collect them and bury them in a completely safe location to ensure not damage and guaranteed hatching. After 45 days the babies emerge, the guards collect them for brief observation then release them into the ocean.

It is an incredible sight to see these tiny turtles independently speed across the sand towards the water and swim away, their heads just visible above the water. The officials say that the amazing thing about the babies is it’s very rare they travel back up the beach, but instinctively head for the waves! A magical experience to be part of, Andaman Islands conservation work for turtles is helping mother nature ensure these exceptional creatures are given every opportunity to thrive.

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