Collette’s Rediscover Cuba

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I’m lucky to have been born into a family that values travel. You might’ve read all about my trip with my grandmother to London and Paris, which was wonderful. The Collette guided tour “Rediscover Cuba” I recently traveled on was just as magical in so many ways and, again, seamlessly planned.

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In case you are unfamiliar with tourism in Cuba, for many years Americans were not able to travel to the country. In fact, tour operators have to possess a special license to bring American tourists to Cuba. Because of this, I had never really thought about Cuba as a place I would ever have the opportunity to visit. Not only was my group able to visit Cuba, but we also visited the best museums, restaurants and attractions. I savored each moment knowing I was extremely fortunate to be on this trip among 27 fellow travelers, which, by the way, I was the youngest by about 45 years. If you know me, you know I can have an insightful conversation with even a brick wall, so it was no problem. Many of the group members were alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the issuing of the Embargo, so I enjoyed learning about the relationship between the United States and Cuba just by talking to them.

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In the last few months before the trip, many friends and family members kept asking, “Why Cuba?” In a sense, I wasn’t exactly sure either.  But once I arrived, I realized exactly why Cuba was such a fantastic travel destination. Antique automobiles, sandy beaches, colorful houses and horse-drawn carriages are all things I loved about Cuba.

When I left Dallas, Texas on an early March afternoon, it was cloudy and windy. When I arrived in Cienfuegos, the sun was shining and the palm trees were swaying in the breeze. It rained once while we were on the road to Havana, but the weather quickly cleared up and resumed its beauty.

Before I left the United States, I heard Cuba didn’t have the best reputation when it came to hospitality or cuisine. However, my experience was just the opposite.  We went to the finest restaurants and hotels during our stay, including an enjoyable stay at our resort in Trinidad for the first few days. Although it was the perfect environment for relaxation, there was no time because there were so many exciting things to see and do in Trinidad. In the city, we saw hundreds of buildings with “Trinidad 500” markings. Our guide informed us that 2014 marks the 500th anniversary of the quaint city. What a pleasant surprise!

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The ration store, art museum and sugar mill were only a few of the places we visited. After exploring Trinidad and Cienfuegos, we were whisked off to Havana in the tour bus. Salsa dancing, a visit to a train station, Hemingway’s house and an hour-long ride in a 1950s red convertible were a few of the things that made the city so special.

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Overall, the music was something I loved most about the country’s culture. A mariachi group, acoustic guitar duo or percussion ensemble serenaded us at nearly every meal and a few of the musicians even asked me to join in! Music is not just  in the background in Cuba. In many places there were musicians playing in the street or at markets. Wouldn’t it be nice if every meal were accompanied by music?

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The art and architecture were stunning. Because of the country’s deep history, there are so many styles of buildings. Some had regal columns and others resembled pastel-colored boxes. Each city we visited had its own style and, more excitingly, some neighborhoods had their own theme. My favorite was Jose Ramirez Fuster’s neighborhood. Fuster is a Cuban artist whose style can be described as a hybrid between Picasso and Dr. Seuss. Each house in his neighborhood had elements of Fuster’s unique mosaic style—then BAM! Fuster’s house is an explosion of colorful imagination and creativity. I would’ve been perfectly fine if my group left me behind.

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Most of all, I loved the laid-back, easygoing way of life the Cubans enjoy. In the countryside and even in the large cities, I saw families sitting together on their porches or congregating by the fences and talking to their neighbors. Most houses and apartments had all their windows and doors open, partially because it’s so hot and humid, but mostly because the people see their neighbors as family. The thought of even leaving my door unlocked is frightening. It’s hard to imagine living life with an open-door policy like the Cubans enjoy.

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Needless to say, our countries have had their differences, but I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to explore Cuba and I hope someday I can take my grandchildren like my grandmother took me.

Author: Lauren Frock

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Collette Travel Service, Inc. d/b/a Collette has been issued a license (license number CT-2012-299283-1) by the Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) which authorizes registered guests of our programs, under the auspices of Collette, to legally travel to Cuba, to participate and engage in a full time schedule of authorized educational exchange activities in Cuba, which will involve meaningful interaction between you and people in Cuba.

Prior to departure, Collette will provide you with a Letter of Authorization to confirm your legal travel status, the authorized travel agenda and activities, and your recordkeeping responsibilities.


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High Rolling, Las Vegas-style

photo 1[1]Las Vegas was always exciting, but it just became even more so with the opening of the High Roller observation wheel at the end of March.

In case you haven’t heard about this, Caesar’s Entertainment spent $550 million to build the new LINQ shopping, dining, and entertainment district on the Las Vegas Strip, with its focal point being this magnificent gyre.

The High Roller rises above the Singapore Flyer, the London Eye, and China’s Star of Nanchange — up until now, the tallest observation wheels.

Check out the following impressive stats:

  • Tallest point: 550 feet
  • Height: about 51 stories
  • Capacity: 1,120 people
  • Number of cabins: 28
  • Number of people per cabin: 40
  • Weight of cabin: 44,000 pounds
  • Glass per cabin: 300 square feet
  • Number of LED lights: 2,000

Lest you think that the spectacular views of Las Vegas won’t keep you sufficiently entertained, each cabin comes with eight monitor screens playing video and music shows. Your ride aboard the High Roller lasts 30 minutes, and the price for tickets will start at $24.95, plus fees. You can now be a part of the Vegas skyline, and enjoy an expansive view of the entire Strip. Get ready to roll!

Collette tours with free time in Las Vegas: Canyon Country and Western Wonders.


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Experience it… Salem, MA

Salem Witch House

Founded in 1626, Salem is one of the oldest cities in the United States.  The coastal city is both scenic and rich in history.  Be awed by its rugged coastline, quaint historic buildings, and picturesque marinas.  The town is perhaps best known for the infamous witch trials of 1692, when several local women were accused of witchcraft and eventually put to death for their crime.  Located here is the “House of Seven Gables,” an authentic Colonial-style 17th century home built by sea captain John Turner in 1668. This home inspired some of the famous works of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, Salem was an important New England trade port particularly for East Indian trade.  This important period is documented at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which features a 1797 merchant ship.

Grand Tour of New England


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San Antonio Redux

 

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A month ago, I wrote a post about San Antonio, and highlighted its River Walk—a series of walkways throughout the city providing stellar access to city treasures. Since then, San Antonio’s River Walk has been featured in National Geographic Traveler and other news outlets, as its epic $358 million expansion has come to completion and it’s open for business!

As is suggested in this name of the last phase — Mission Reach — access to the four Spanish missions has been increased (access to museums was increased in an earlier phase of the project — Museum Reach). The River Walk has long provided superb access to hotels, restaurants, and attractions. This Mission Reach phase somewhat restricts access to the first two, but includes heightened access to the third, the goal being to restore the surrounding environment to a more natural state.

You are free to travel by foot, bike, and even kayak, if you so choose. But proper boats are not permitted here, in order to foster the proliferation of native plants and wildlife. Tourists and locals alike can now enjoy the natural beauty of the San Antonio River with improved walkability — a great combination!

 See the River Walk for Yourself!

 


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St. Patrick’s Day Near and Far

Brazen Head Pub

Today, the world is celebrating Ireland.  Dating back to the 17th century, St. Patrick ’s Day was traditionally a religious day of feasting and celebration in honor of its patron saint, who is attributed with bringing Christianity to Ireland and driving the snakes from Ireland.  But as we all know, it has evolved into a celebration of everything Irish and the world becomes Irish for a day.

Whether you have been to Ireland and are reminiscing about the warm Irish spirit and hospitable culture, or longing for a trip to the one of the friendliest countries in the world, today is a day to celebrate. If you can’t make it to Dublin for their fun-filled, four-day-long festival, some of the biggest celebrations take place around the U.S.  Here are a few of the big ones:

New York City

This is the biggest celebration. It began as an Irish military march in 1762.  Today, the parade features over 150,000 participants and sees over a million people taking to the streets every year.

Chicago

They get the prize for the most imaginative. For 40 years the city has been coloring the Chicago River green for the day (eco-friendly dye of course) along with hosting an extravagant parade and other festivities.

Savannah

It is St. Patty’s Day, southern-style.  As in Dublin, they too do a four-day-long celebration with parades, bands, food, and plenty of beer. But in Savannah, it is all about the music – five stages and 60 bands over four days!

Boston

Boston boasts having the first St. Patty’s celebration taking place in 1737.  A city with more than 15% of its residents claiming Irish heritage and a basketball team named the Celtics, this is the perfect place to celebrate Irish culture.

New Orleans

You missed Marti Gras – no worries, there is always St. Patrick ’s Day New Orleans-style.  Another four-day celebration, complete with daily parades painted in a sea of green, and of course, plenty of beer!

So today, if you can’t be in Ireland in person, be sure to take some time to learn a Gaelic word, wear an exorbitant amount of green, eat a heaping portion of corned beef and cabbage, and drink some Irish Beer (in moderation of course). I hope all of you get to visit Ireland someday to see for yourself how truly amazing it is.

I wish you the Luck of the Irish!


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In Search of the Big 5

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Imagine it: two million hectares of protected game reserve spread over the plains of South Africa. The Big 5 roam freely. More than three hundred types of trees rise skyward and over five hundred species of birds call this natural wonderland home. This is Kruger National Park – one of the largest game reserves on the continent of Africa. During your tour, really explore this gorgeous park. With a full-day game drive in an open-air vehicle, view the Big 5 – elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino – while a local expert offers insight into these fascinating animals. Keep an eye out for an impala, zebra or giraffe as well. Unwind during a picnic lunch as the Kruger National Park sets an unforgettable backdrop. This is sure to be a highlight of your wilderness adventure.

On Collette’s Spectacular South Africa tour, explore Kruger National Park – the perfect place to get up close to nature in search of the Big 5.


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Be Inspired by Iceland

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“Why Iceland?” Anyone who has ever been to the world’s youngest landmass has been confronted with this question from those who picture a cold, icy, desolate island that flirts with the Arctic Circle. Somehow, despite having been there many times, I have always been at a loss for words when trying to answer this query. Even with the broadest vocabulary, one would be hard-pressed to find words that can completely describe this amazing country. Imagine slipping into warm, geothermic spas that not only warm your bones but also revitalize your skin. Imagine going spelunking in natural lava caves, where the deepest secrets of our beautiful planet have been frozen in time in a myriad of earth tones. Imagine cruising along to watch whale pods surface for their almost daily photo shoot, or puffins flapping their tiny little wings before landing in the waters around their nesting holes, or gannets dive-bombing for their supper. Imagine breathtaking scenery that has attracted writers and film crews from around the world who draw on the natural beauty of an island that has offered itself up as muse to many storytellers.

Now, imagine, if you will, a strong Viking man overlooking a western Norwegian fjord, his family loading all of their worldly possessions and farm animals onto the family knarr. Their knarr was a ship that would require fewer people to sail while at the same time holding more cargo than the snekkja or drekkar, ships that had sown fear and destruction across the British Isles and a greater part of the European Atlantic coast over the course of the late 8th and early 9th centuries. That Viking was Flóki Vilgerðarson, later nicknamed Raven-Flóki for his use of three ravens to locate what until then had been known as Garðarshólmi (Garðar’s Home), Iceland’s name after Garðar Svavarsson was blown off course on a trip to his wife’s home in the Hebrides. Flóki would have most likely been fidgeting with a sunstone in his hand, going over the rumors he had heard about this mysterious place, not knowing that he would be the first to spend a winter in this desolate island.

Not long after Flóki, blood feuds and taxes would spur Scandinavians to the island that at first had been known as Snæland (Snowland), a name given to it by the first Scandinavian to be blown of course towards the island, a Danish man by the name of Naddodd. The 9th century would culminate in the first recognized settlement of Iceland by Ingólfur Arnarson, who, along with his wife Hallveig and a small band of followers and slaves, would found what would later be known as the city of Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital, and probably one of the safest, friendliest cities one could ever visit. Although it remained farmland until the 18th century, Reykjavík, which translates from Old Norse into “Smoky Bay,” was nevertheless one of the power centers on the island.

From this tiny island, Leif Eiríksson, son of Erik the Red, sailed to what he would call Vinland, a continent whose “discovery” would later be attributed to a certain Christopher Columbus, the latter having made a wrong assumption on his journey to find a shortcut to the spice route, and landed in the Americas just shy of five centuries later. Some say that the stories of the Vikings had come to Christopher Columbus’s attention during his days as a young sailor, and it is even postulated he spent time in and around the town of Grundarfjörður.

These images and stories bounce around in my thoughts as I fly into the Reykjanes Peninsula again, something that always puts me in a good mood. Who wouldn’t be? I almost always remember that question (“Why Iceland?”), and an open-ended answer comes to mind: Why not? Why not visit a land that is noted for its scenery, from geologically rare tuya mountains (extinct subglacial volcanoes), glaciers, and every kind of lava field imaginable, to double rainbows in the light months and Aurora Borealis in the dark ones? Jules Verne’s 1864 novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth saw its protagonists find an entrance into the belly of the Earth at Snæfellsjökull. And who could forget when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano brought European airspace to an almost complete standstill in 2010?

A land over which the Norse god Thor battled the giants from Jötunheim, and Odin completed his ride to find souls for Valhalla, the Asgardian Hall of Heroes. Where Loki schemed and Heimdallr kept an eye over Bifröst, the bridge connecting Asgard to Midgard (or in Norse mythology, Heaven and Earth). Where the struggle of men and gods played out of a land that would later inspire the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, the famous Oxford professor who dreamed up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

A land that, faced with its own economic crisis, saw its people democratically hold their government and bankers responsible, all while remaining independent and working out deals to repay their international creditors. One of the unofficial mottos of Iceland following the economic crisis and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull always brings a smile to my face: “Don’t mess with Iceland; we may not have cash, but we’ve got ash.”

A land with animals whose genetic lines stretch back a millennium (riding my favorite Icelandic horse Sómi at the Skjaldarvík Farm just outside Akureyri is a personal highlight), and whose inhabitants can trace their genealogy just as far back, thanks to the Landnámbók (Book of Settlements). A land where migrating birds find sanctuary, among them the ever-so-cute puffin, but also gannets, oystercatchers, fulmars and gulls of all kinds. When we cruise out of Grundarfjörður to see a protected island where the puffins mate each summer, it’s hard to fight back a smile as you watch those little guys flap like crazy before coming in for a crash landing . . . cuteness does not always equal grace in nature.

For these reasons and many more I love going to Iceland, and yet there is truly no way to put into words a proper answer to “Why Iceland?” The words above, try as they might to capture actually being there, much like trying to describe being in love, always seem to fall short. It is no surprise to me that tourism in Iceland has developed so much in the post-World War II era, especially in the last two decades, and yet, it still feels like an undiscovered country. Whale watching, glacier walks, lava cave exploring, soaking up minerals in the geothermal baths, and doing it all with a population that speaks English almost as well as you do. Iceland is waiting for you, waiting to inspire you, and waiting to share with you the same conundrum I’ve tried to address here: Why Iceland?  The answer awaits you just north of the North Atlantic Drift.                                                                               –Gregory Hall, Iceland Tour Manager, Collette


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Taking Wheel of Fortune for a Spin

#WheeltravelI hope you have been tuning in to Wheel of Fortune this week.  Collette has been sponsoring “European Vacation” week and making some travel dreams come true.

I was lucky enough to visit Sony Studios for the taping of the shows. Stepping behind the scenes was a surreal experience. Although I had never been there before, the set felt like home.

I am just old enough to remember a time when there were only six channels to choose from. Which means I can remember when families gathered around the television after dinner. Young and old – we all watched the same programs.  Heck, I remember when many a Wheel winner went home with a ceramic Dalmatian.

Wheel has long been a part of my family.

You might ask, how does a game show fit with travel? Being a Wheel fan is about more than ‘watching.’ The show brings people together. Like travel, it’s an experience.

No two episodes are the same. You never know what the contestants are going to be like. You never know what kind of puzzles will appear. And like a Collette tour, it’s fun.

Over the years Pat and Vanna came and went from my life. But it was not long ago that my nine-year-old started asking if he could watch America’s Favorite Game Show. He loves to try and solve the puzzles and lives to beat me to the answer.

Now tuning in at seven every night has become like stepping into a time machine. Wheel takes me back to a different era. The only thing missing is my dad adjusting the antenna.


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Profile of a Product Manager

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Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Manny Paulo, a Senior Product Manager who has been at Collette for 25 years. I asked him why he chose his job, about his life and what his thoughts are on his product. He is passionate about his role and works every day to make our traveler’s dreams come true. As you will see, he provides us with some interesting insights into the life of a product manager.

How long have you been with Collette and what is your career background?

Manny:  I have been in travel and tourism all my professional life and have been at Collette for 25 years now.  In college at University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, I majored in languages (Portuguese, Spanish, and French.)  After graduation and trying my hand at teaching, I chose to follow my passion and I dedicated myself to full-time regional tour guiding. Collette caught my attention specifically because they were a worldwide company and I was excited to have the opportunity to use my language skills.

What are some of your favorite life experiences in your career?

Manny:  My job has afforded me to travel extensively.  It is my passion and I am happy to say that Collette has programs in 58 countries and I have visited 52.  The educational and cultural experiences along with the human interactions have been priceless.  It certainly makes you look at the world from a very different perspective.

You have lived outside the US, what was it like?

Manny:  It was a tremendous experience, I recommend it to everyone. It’s a true eye-opener!  You learn about their culture, the country’s economy, and see the world through their eyes.  Things Americans take for granted can be seen as a luxury in some other countries.

What makes Collette stand out in the marketplace?

Manny:  High quality product at a great value and attention to every detail! My goal is to always make our guests’ travel dreams come true.  The focus is to provide the guest with the best overall experience. From the pre-tour customer service, to the unique tour inclusions mixing with the must-see’s, and being led by Collette’s professional Tour Managers, these are all the things that set us apart.

What destination do you feel everyone must visit?

Manny:  Portugal has it all.  It’s a small country with so much to offer – history, food, wine, and welcoming people. It has a passionate culture and is located in paradise; its diverse natural beauty is astounding.  The country has 500 miles of golden beaches, more than 160 magnificent castles, and charming fishing villages and vineyards dotted throughout.  It also has the warmest climate in Europe with nearly 3,000 sunny hours per year.  And, of course, the lush, remote volcanic Azores Islands, they are like Ireland and Hawaii combined.  In comparison to other European destinations, Portugal is the least expensive. It is a great value for the money.

Why should potential travelers consider guided travel?

Manny:  By exploring a destination with Collette, they get in-depth knowledge of the history, culture, and traditions of the local environment and its people.  For the regions I manage, some of the countries have a recorded history dating as far back as 10,000 years. During each country’s peak of greatness, they contributed significantly to the advancements of civilization.  By learning about the past, one can have a much better understanding of the present and how the world has evolved over centuries.


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A “Giant” Northern Ireland Attraction

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March makes me think of St. Patrick’s Day, which in turn makes me think of Ireland. Yes, I am a bit early. But it is my job to think about travel, and Ireland presents plenty to talk about. Up in the far north of Ireland, on the County Antrim coast, there lies the wondrous Giant’s Causeway — a truly legendary place. Formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, the Causeway resembles a cobbled road leading out to the sea. Before we knew the science behind its existence, there were stories about its creation involving giants and magic. The most popular of these had Finn McCool — a famous Irish giant — building the Causeway in order to battle the Scottish giant Angus. In reality, there was a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, which caused the formation of the 40,000 basalt columns that rise out of the sea to seemingly form a walkway. The adventurous can actually walk on them, but they are just as impressive to behold from afar. It’s no wonder that Giant’s Causeway stirs the imagination!

Experience Giant’s Causeway!

 


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