Sunday, April 26, 2015

SANTA CRUZ, CA: From Redwoods to the Seashore

View from cliff walk, Wilder Ranch State Park, Santa Cruz, CA
Perched at the north end of Monterey Bay on the California coast, the town of Santa Cruz has something for everyone–a beautiful shoreline, forested hillsides with tall redwoods, great food, a University of California campus with all its accompanying activities, a lively arts and crafts scene, a boardwalk, and more. In late March, a visit to a friend in Santa Cruz provided us with the opportunity to relax and enjoy some of the area’s striking natural beauty.
A wide variety of hiking trails are available around Santa Cruz. One of our walks was at the Wilder Ranch State Park just north of town along Highway 1. The path leads from the parking area across open fields to a trail along the top of cliffs overlooking the ocean. It was a beautiful day, slightly breezy but not cold. As we walked, gulls soared overhead and a few spring wildflowers bloomed along the path.
Harbor seals
As we looked down to the water’s edge, we saw a clump of seals resting on a rock just above the waves. They too seemed to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

The next morning we took a hike among the redwoods in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Our trail took us down a steep hill lined with ferns and other plants and then followed the river that flows along the bottom of the valley and eventually into Monterey Bay.

Our friend’s house overlooks Natural Bridges State Beach. On one side is a sandy beach facing the large rocks after which the park is named. On the other side, shallow pools with a variety of sea life are exposed at low tide. Before leaving Santa Cruz we scrambled down to the tide pools to see what we could find and discovered various sea anemones, a multitude of mussels, and other ocean life.
Tidepool with sea anemones

It had been a long time since our last visit to Santa Cruz many years ago. This trip made us realize that we should visit more often!

Monday, April 20, 2015

HAVANA DAYS AND NIGHTS: Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Havana, Cuba. Restored Plaza Vieja with Sculpture by Roberto Fabelo
My friend and fellow children's book writer Gretchen Woelfle recently returned from an exciting two week cycling trip in Cuba and has graciously contributed this report. 

Our Cycleactive group’s  reward for successfully cycling eleven days over Cuba’s “undulations” (see April 13 blogpost) was five fabulous days in Havana! It’s a seductive city – with exquisitely restored streets and plazas, and just-as-interesting crumbling, un-restored side streets.

Hemingway's studio at Finca Vigia
We spent three nights at Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s home in the 1930s before he bought his finca outside the city. A rooftop restaurant and original art-deco details, including a steel cage elevator with operator, provided a charming retro atmosphere. After the group dispersed, a few of us stayed on for more.

Three in a taxi: Tres chic as gringos! (Gretchen in the middle)

Some of our adventures:
• a two-hour tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) with a marvelous Cuban guide.
Museo de Bellas Artes to see how 20th century Cuban artists merged European influences with a Cuban sensibility.
• taxi ride in a 1950s Chevy convertible to Fusterlandia – a whole neighborhood transformed by painter and mosaic artist José Rodriguez Fuster;
• classical chamber music concert in an old Spanish palacio;
• art galleries and studios of contemporary artists, including
• stunning movie posters from the 1960s-80s – both Cuban and foreign films;
Taller Experimental de Gráfica, a print-making studio filled with artists whose work is exhibited in a small gallery, and for sale at reasonable prices.
• an outdoor market surrounding the Plaza des Armas selling used books (some in English) and other collectibles
• a Hemingway odyssey to: his room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos; to Cojimar, the unchanged seaside town where he kept his fishing boat and where his corner table in a favorite restaurant is reserved for him; and the lovely Finca Vigia, his home for twenty years, with his books on the shelves, his typewriter in his studio, and the dining table set for dinner. 
• an espresso bar where customers patiently wait along the counter while el barista does it all: washes cups, lines up saucers, makes and serves coffee one cup at a time, collects your money, whips your saucer away as soon as you lift your cup, and repeats the ritual.
• walking along the Prado, a wide boulevard with a central promenade watching children play soccer; friends gather to make music and chat; artists make and sell their work; and tourists and locals soak up the scene.    
• sipping a piña colada and watching the sun set from a rooftop.
• spending the evening at an outdoor café listening to a local band with three friends, then welcoming more and more of our fellow-cyclists who wandered by and joined us.
• conversations with Cubans eager to speak English and discuss their longing for contact with the outside world, the successes and failings of la Revolutión, and their resourceful ways of getting ahead in a difficult economy.
• Nighttime walks along the Malecón (the harbor seawall,) passing local cafés, fishermen, and courting couples. 
Laying pavement. The pavement was laid by evening!
I didn’t get enough of Havana, so I’ll be returning in June for a week to wander the Havana Art Biennial – an extravaganza that fills the city with work by artists from all over the world. I’ll also repeat some of those daytime and nighttime roamings, drink more espresso, seek out more music, and take another 1950s taxi ride.

Two lovely ladies just having fun.
The Other Side of Paradise by Julia Cooke, is full of stories and insights about Cuba today. You’ll learn a lot that you won’t see as a tourist.
I watched Our Man in Havana, starring Alex Guinness, based on Graham Greene’s novel, before and after I went to Cuba. I also read the novel while I was there. It takes place in 1958, just before the Revolution. Both book and film are brilliant.
Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to Cuba for details on travel, the two Cuban currencies, and more.
For more info about Cuba: has tons of good information about many things Cuban.
Havana morning from my hotel room.

Monday, April 13, 2015

CYCLING THROUGH CUBA, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Street in the town of Trinidad, Cuba
My friend and fellow children's book writer Gretchen Woelfle recently returned from an exciting two week cycling trip in Cuba and has graciously contributed this report.

Quick!  Go to Cuba now, before it changes too much! And if you want a real adventure, go cycling in Cuba with, a British group. 

Gretchen with the limestone karsts of the Vinales Valley
I thought Cuba would be flat. I was dead wrong. How could I forget that Fidel and his compadres hid out for years in the mountains? Our English guide kindly called our routes “undulating.” I went careening downhill as fast as I dared, to get as much momentum as I could for the uphill climb. It was exhilarating! The roads weren’t flat, but they were free of motorized traffic. We cycled past many horse carts, men on horseback, and a few bicyclists.
Horse carts were common
Cycling is a great way to see the country. You’re at ground level, hearing the sounds, smelling the smells, feeling the wind and the sun….. For eleven days we cycled through villages and towns, stopping for mid-morning Cuban coffee and lunches in lovely old haciendas. We browsed in village markets where the crafts were made by the very women minding the stalls. 

Waterfall and swimming hole
We went into the Escambray Mountains, a national park, and hiked down a canyon to an exquisite swimming hole, fed by a lush waterfall. We cycled down the mountains on back roads, through farming valleys, to Santa Clara and the vast memorial (and burial place) of Che Guavara. (His saintly status is guaranteed, for he died young, serving the Revolutión.) We spent a day at a beautiful Caribbean beach and a night at a horse-breeding ranch. We visited a tobacco plantation and clambered through vast cave networks that would never pass US safety regulations.

Street scene
Along the way we stayed at government-run tourist hotels outside of the towns, beautifully landscaped with inviting swimming pools. Some were brand-new, all were comfortable. Best of all, in Viñales, we stayed for three nights in casas particulars, private homes operating as B & Bs. We sat in rocking chairs on the front porch and watched neighbors nip in and out of each other’s homes, and bicycle vendors with braids of garlic draped over their handlebars. Our hostess, Lioska (who scowled when she admitted her name was Russian,) complained about the taxes she had to pay for her private enterprise, but was expanding her business from two to three bedrooms.
Dinner at Lioska's House
A few memorable moments:
Dinner in a palador, or private restaurant, with a local band, who had us singing, playing percussion, and snaking through the dining rooms in a conga line.  Even the kitchen staff joined the fun…cycling past a farmhouse where women laughed and shouted “Abuela!” (Grandmother) to me….drinking a cold Cuban Tukola after a hot ride….music everywhere: friends making music on a beach, with others dancing….two old men singing in a plaza in Trinidad…chatting with a market woman who wanted to trade my cycling shoes for a papier maché 1950s car that her father made. (I bought one instead.)….visiting one family’s small botanic garden and home, and learning from our Cuban guide, Jaime, all about their three Santaria altars with Catholic/Santaria saints…. people-watching in the Viñales town plaza: small children racing around, teenagers flirting, everyone enjoying music from a nearby club…. shouting “Hola!” to folks in the horse carts….making friends with the eight English, three Irish, and five Americans in our most congenial group.

"Everything depends on our own efforts." Fidel's words painted on walls and houses all over Cuba.
I got a splendid look at Cuban landscapes from pine forests to tropical beaches, glimpsed rural and town life on the ground, and felt the unquenchable Cuban spirit in people’s smiles and greetings.  

Our daily cycling ranged from 25-40 miles. An easy cycling speed is about 10 miles per hour, so this left plenty of time for leisurely meals and other activities. And there was always the support bus if you wanted to climb aboard. (Full disclosure: I cycled about 90% of time, opting out of a few steep climbs.)

Produce stall
Traveling to Cuba: We flew from Los Angeles to Cancun, Mexico. Flights from Cancun to Havana via Cubana Airlines were purchased from a UK travel agent. You get your $25 tourist visa for Cuba at the Cancun airport. Cubans are happy to see us, and don’t stamp US passports. 

Good book: The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke, published in 2014, is a close look at young Cubans today, by a journalist who spent the last five years living or visiting Cuba for long periods. I read it before I went, and after I returned.
More info: has tons of good information about many things Cuban.
Next week: Five days in Havana.

Monday, April 6, 2015

50 States: Celebrating the Fourth Anniversary of The Intrepid Tourist

When I was in fifth grade we had to memorize all the states of the United States and their capitals. (In 1955, there were only 48 states.) To prove we knew them, we had to stand up in front of the class and recite them as we pointed to the correct place on the map. At the time, I lived in Minnesota and was most familiar with the nearby states of the Midwest, where we traveled in summer on vacation. Gradually, my horizons widened, first on a family trip to California in 1958, which added many of the western states, and then the next summer on a family trip to visit relatives in Connecticut. (We traveled by car–six of us crammed into our 1954 Chevy, with a carrier on top filled with our camping equipment.)  Now I have managed to visit all but one of the fifty states. The missing state is Louisiana. I was once on an airplane headed for Dallas that couldn’t land because of a thunderstorm and we were redirected to Baton Rouge for refueling. But I don’t count that as being in Louisiana because my feet didn’t actually touch the ground. So it's still on the list.

My goal in traveling is not how many places I’ve visited but discovering what is unique and interesting about the places I go. Four years ago I launched The Intrepid Tourist blog as a place where I could share some of my travel experiences both near and far. I am grateful to my friends and family who have allowed me to share some of theirs too. Now, as I celebrate the fourth anniversary of the blog, I look forward to more travel and more posts. Whether my excursions are close to home or on the other side of the globe, I always find something new and interesting to see. Perhaps this year I will make a trip to Louisiana and then I will be able to say I have been in all 50 states!