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Dorothy & Don Gagnon - Vacation in Havana, Cuba  (See Photos in Our Album)

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Don and I left for the Fort Lauderdale, FL airport to travel on Silver Airways Flight #102 on Friday, December 23, 2016 for Varadero, Cuba. Don had won travel passes for 2 at the 2016 2nd Annual Eastern Airlines Pioneers Reunion and Celebration, compliments of EARA.

The Silver  Airways Reservation Agents took extra good care of us seeing that Don was a former Eastern employee. We were  quickly checked in on our standby passes, and given our seat assignment and a Visa to fill in (cost of $75.00 each) and then quickly sent to U. S. Customs to make our flight.  Next we  had to fill in an Affadavit at the Ticket Counter needed for Cuban Travelers, otherwise you couldn’t board.

Interesting enough we went down the jetway through doors but instead of going into the plane, it lead outside to a roped area on the tarmac, and followed into a waiting shuttle. It was windy as usual and not a good hair day!  Our flight on Silver Airways was a prop plane and not the best way to travel, however, it was only an hour 40 minutes flight. We had  a good deal of turbulence that could be felt quite a bit and asked to remain seated with seat belts,  which wasn’t a problem .

We waited in Cuban Customs filling out another form then onto another room for a luggage check again. However, we were stopped by a medical  nurse to fill out a hospital record before being allowed to leave at a cost of $25.00 each. The  Cuban terminal  was quite old but up to date. We changed our American dollar currency into Pesos as American Cash/Credit cards were not accepted  in Cuba. The American dollar was worth $.87 cents but when we planned this trip originally, it was worth $1.34.

Outside the Terminal were 25-30 cab drivers all asking to drive us and we finally secured one for the 2-hour drive from Varadero, Cuba to our Havana Hotel, El Bosque. Check-in was quick so we took the elevator up to our room on the 2nd floor, and unloaded the luggage. We cleaned up for dinner and as I set up the Converter plug for cell/tablet charging, we lost electricity and had to get service personnel to restore. Our hotel was 4 star rated, but the marble floors and tiles were very old. Architecture was beautiful. We did have a king size bed even though they advertised 2 double beds. The room was very nice and had a small balcony overlooking a Nature forest. We had plenty of hot water and clean towels etc. I had read reviews that sometimes you were lucky to have hot water and some folks actually had none for the entire week they were there. So we considered ourselves very lucky.

The wait staff was super, and most spoke some broken English and enough for us to get by without a problem and ordering our dinner from their menu (which was Cuban with an English translation on the menu) was not a problem. Cuban dinner  was served with a flair, and delicious and inexpensive.


The next morning, a full Continental breakfast and off to our previously arranged 3-hour tour of  old Havana, Cuba. I had researched on the Internet and found Cuba Irresistible Tours with high reviews of our guide, Ary, and he was exceptionally knowledgeable, very kind, and courteous.  The weather was beautiful the entire vacation.

We learned so much of  the  beginning of Cuban from Ary as he guided us through the original Havana and related the story of the Spanish conquistador, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar who first sited Havana in 1515. The  area was renamed in 1519 as San Cristóbal de La Habana. This name came from the patron saint of travelers San Cristobal, although some say it is a derivative of Christopher Columbus. Unfortunately, four years later the settlers moved to the present site of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) on the west coast to the channel leading into the harbor. Although the capital of Spanish Cuba was initially Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the south coast of Cuba, it was transferred to Havana in 1592.

The first industry of Cuba was panning for gold. The Spanish war ships arrived and took the natives prisoners, and had natives pan enough gold to keep the Spanish pursuing it for several years before giving it up in 1547. A Spanish settler, Hernan Cortéz, left for Mexico taking with him the stock of gold. Later Havana became a key port for ships traveling between Spain and New Spain as the ships needed fresh water, dried meat, leather and wood for repairs.

The climate of Cuba only allowed growing “casabe” which is made from a flour ground from the roots of the yucca plant and depended upon the rain to keep it watered which they caught and stored in cisterns.

Then in 1550, Havana authorities brought in fresh water from the Almendares River and dug a canal (zanja) but money was an issue  so the King of Spain authorized an anchoring fee to discourage some ships from stopping at Havana. The economy deteriorated and in 1562 the anchoring fee was rescinded and taxes were imposed upon Havana residents. The canal was completed in 1592 and  fully paid by 1600.

Havana now was under siege by Pirates and the fleets carrying treasure from the Americas to Spain rendezvoused at Havana to travel in convoys across the Atlantic. As a result of this Havana was the target of French, English and Dutch marauders. Pirates began attacking Havana and in 1537 it was captured. In 1555 the  famous French pirate Jacques de Sores captured the city of Santiago de Cuba in the east. He demanded a ransom that the residents could not pay so he burned their homes. Later he went to the countryside and captured landowners and slaves and Sores had them hung. A dedicated place in the Plaza was on our tour to see.

The Spanish decided that given the key role played by Havana in the transporting of gold and silver that they should build fortifications and a city wall to protect Havana. It was started  in 1558 and the fort was called El Castillo de la Real Fuerza (The Castle of Royal Might) and completed in 1577. In 1589 King Philip of Spain ordered the building of two forts at the entrance to the harbor called The Castle of Saint Salvador of the Point and The Castle of the Three Kings of the Cliff, that one which popularly is known as El Morro. Their construction required financing and they began to tax shipping.

We were toured through the Nacionale Hotel where the battle of Cuba and Spain took place. We saw massive cannons that were entrenched and absolutely enormous. We also toured the bunker showing written banners of the original conflict between American and Cuba over the Russian missiles entering Cuba. We were then escorted by taxi to the next El Morro fort where we saw the Russian missiles, planes and cannons that were going to be used against the Americans during that conflict. The last of our tour was up to see the enormous tall and beautiful statue of San Cristobal overlooking the harbor.

Christmas Day we went to the Nacional Hotel in Old Havana which is gorgeous and though expensive rooms, the restaurant was inexpensive compared to U. S. 5-star restaurants, and we were quite surprised. Fabulous dinner all the way around at The Aguliar Restaurant. This exquisite spot is named after the Havana defender Don Luis Aguliar who forced the British back from the bluff now occupied by the hotel during their invasion in the 18th century. Perhaps the most elegant restaurant in town, its finely crafted ceiling, beautiful vases and hanging lamps are testimony to the fine design of this exceptional setting. Our Christmas dinner was great. Just a tremendous visit of old historic Havana.

Another great restaurant one night was the Nero di Scippio Italian Restaurant, Havana, Cuba which was recommended by our taxi driver, as the owner is a family member of his wife. We reviewed the menu which clearly indicated all selections in English. The dinner was fabulous and again inexpensive for what we ordered.

The next day, we had another free full breakfast, and left  Havana, Cuba after having such a wonderful 4-day vacation. We hired the same driver, and he took us
for the 2-hour drive to the Varadero Airport. Once there,  the airport was packed and we received notice that our plane was delayed in take off due to the many holiday travelers. Canadian vacations north were cancelled and some delayed due to weather.

Once we boarded, it was a 1-hour flight to Ft. Lauderdale. We had a 3-hour wait in customs though, but as we expected, due to the threats on our country in the past. We have all learned that patience is a virtue and we must be patient to allow security to do their job.

Wonderful visit to Cuba, such a beautiful country with very kind and friendly Cuban people to make our memories of Cuba a great one. But remember... don't forget to Exchange your Cuban money at the Cuban airport before departing for the U. S. You cannot exchange Cuban  currency here in the U.S. or you will lose it as we did and are stuck with the Cuban currency.