by Kelly | Oct 8, 2018 | Connecticut, Day Trips, Itineraries, North America, Travel, United States
For many people, Fall is one of the best times to visit and explore New England. Many people head north to Vermont or New Hampshire for leaf-peeping. If you are looking for something off-the-beaten-path this year, check out these great activities in Central Connecticut!
Looking for more Fall New England activities? Check out this post about a Fall Weekend in New Hampshire, and this one about what to do in Salem, Massachusetts!
Apple and Pumpkin Picking
Apple and pumpkin picking are two can’t-miss activities in central Connecticut. The season for apples begins around the end of August and continues through the beginning of October. Pumpkin season runs from the end of September through October. Check out either of the orchards below for your farm-fresh apple and pumpkin needs.
Many people visit Lyman Orchards every year for its apples and pumpkins, as well as it’s annual corn maze. Many other people visit just to purchase one of their well-known pies. If you have trouble deciding, go for the Hi-Top Apple Pie, which is perfect when served at Thanksgiving dinner.
32 Reeds Gap Road, Middlefield, CT 06455 * https://www.lymanorchards.com/
Growing up in central Connecticut, Dondero Orchards offered a no-frills fall experience for cheap apple and pumpkin picking. Over the years, its popularity has allowed it to grow into one of the most popular farms in the area. Pumpkins are no longer 10 cents per pound, but instead there are craft fairs, a farmers market, farm stand, and farm-to-table dinners offered by the orchard.
529 Woodland Street, South Glastonbury, CT 06073 * https://www.donderoorchards.com/
What do Nutmeggers do after they’ve picked all their apples? We host apple festivals, of course! The two most popular festivals are held annually in Southington and Glastonbury.
Southington Apple Harvest Festival
Grab a fresh apple fritter and listen to the live music provided by the Southington Apple Harvest Festival! Complete with carnival rides, a craft fair, a pie baking contest, fireworks, and a parade this festival embodies central Connecticut in the Fall. You can always expect to see great musical acts: this year’s entertainment was opened by Bowling for Soup! Held the last weekend of September and the first weekend of October, you’ll have to mark this one on your calendar for next year.
75 Main Street, Southington, CT 06489 * 2019 Dates: 9/27-9/29, 10/4-10/6 * http://www.southingtonahf.com/
Glastonbury Apple Festival
The Connecticut River Valley Chamber of Commerce hosts its annual apple festival in Glastonbury every year. As stated on its website, “For the 5th year consecutive year, the Apple Harvest Festival will feature three stages of live music with 30 emerging artists, a full midway of amusement rides, over 100 vendors, 25 food trucks/purveyors, the extremely popular Harvest Pub, the Angry Orchard 5K Road Race and all things fall in New England.” This festival will take place next weekend, so if you want to get the full Fall experience in Connecticut, hop in your car and drive down to Glastonbury for a day!
300 Welles Street, Glastonbury, CT 06033 * 2018 Dates: 10/12-10/14 * https://www.crvchamber.org/events/details/44th-apple-harvest-festival-10-12-2018-5134
If you prefer fairs that have less of a focus on apples and more on animals, add the following agricultural fairs to your calendar. Although they have both ended for 2018, they are worthwhile to make note of for Fall 2019!
The Durham Fair is considered Connecticut’s largest agricultural fair. For just four days, you can visit the fair to see prize-winning animals, enjoy fresh or fried fair food, ride the rides at Midway, and see performing acts like Melissa Etheridge and Scott Mccreery, the two 2018 headliners. If the famous Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts is not an option for you, check out the Durham Fair instead for a comparable experience.
24 Town House Road, Durham, CT 06422 * 2019 dates: 9/26-9/29 * https://www.durhamfair.com
Haddam Neck Fair
For a smaller agricultural fair in central Connecticut, spend your Labor Day Weekend at the Haddam Neck Fair. Started by the Haddam Neck Grange in 1910, the fair now spans three days and welcome tens of thousands of guests. It no longer just shows off animals and vegetables, but instead provides carnival rides, a variety of food, Country Western entertainment, a legendary tractor pull, and a recently-added 5K road race. If you want to experience a typical Connecticut agricultural fair without the crowds attracted to Durham, the Haddam Neck Fair is perfect for you.
207 Middle Haddam Road, Middle Haddam, CT 06456 * 2019 dates: 8/30-9/2 * http://haddamneckfair.com
Vineyards and Breweries
Chateau Le Gari
Connecticut has over 35 vineyards and wineries to explore: impressive for a state where little is known about its wine. One of my favorites is Chateau Le Gari. This vineyard was founded last year by the former Vice President of the CT Farm Wine Development Council, Gary Crump. The property is beautiful and the wines are flavorful, with most of the grapes grown right on the property.
One of the best parts about this vineyard is the presence of Gary himself. When you arrive for a tasting you may be greeted by the former-Cajun behind the tasting bar pouring his own wine and telling you stories from his career and life. If you are lucky, you may even get to try some of his local cooking. Every Sunday afternoon, Gary makes and serves pasta with bolognese to his guests! Gary’s knowledge of wine is astounding, so if you can catch him while you’re here for a conversation, be sure to do so.
303 South Main Street, Marlborough, CT 06447 * https://www.chateaulegari.com
Priam Vineyards is located less than five minutes from Chateau Le Gari. In fact, Priam was also founded by Gary Crump! Stop in for a quick tasting, or bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the back patio with a bottle of local wine.
11 Shailor Hill Road, Colchester, CT 06415 * http://www.priamvineyards.com
Fat Orange Cat Brewery
A few years ago, Mike Klucznik started brewing his own beer for personal consumption, as many Americans do. After winning a number of home brewing competitions, he decided to open his own brewery. Sheila Mullen had ample space on her property in rural Connecticut, so the two built a barn to host the brewing operations and a small bar. The pair still travels with their team to national craft beer competitions, but if you like beer and are in the area, you should travel to the Fat Orange Cat Brewery to try the beer for yourself!
47 Tartia Road, East Hampton, CT 06424 * https://fatorangecatbrewco.com/
If you only do one Fall activity in central Connecticut, you must visit Pumpkintown, U.S.A. In 1990, Sandra Peszynski of Paul’s & Sandy’s Too farm store painted faces on a few pumpkins, added some clothes, and invited the local townspeople to take photos. She had no idea that 28 years later, Pumpkintown would be the top non-scary Halloween attraction in Connecticut! The town now has a Saloon, Bank, Post Office (to mail your Pumpkintown postcards), Firehouse with a firepole to slide down, tires for jumping, a hay bale maze, tractor rides, and so much more! Don’t forget to take pictures!
93 East High Street, East Hampton, CT 06424 * http://www.pumpkintown.com
Old Airline Trail
Fall is the perfect season for hiking! While you won’t find many tall mountains in Connecticut, there are many beautiful trails to walk, run, or bike along. The Old Airline Trail stretches about 25 miles from East Hampton to Thompson. Built in 1873 to connect New York City and Boston, the tracks have long been covered by gravel to provide a recreational area to locals. Ample parking is available every few miles along the trail, and access is free.
Trail head: 69 Smith Street, East Hampton, CT 06424 * https://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&q=479336&deepNav_GID=1650
Lady Katherine Cruise
Central Connecticut is often referred to as the Connecticut River Valley due to the Connecticut River running through it. One of the best ways to experience the river is by taking a cruise. The Lady Katherine departs from Middletown and East Haddam, and offers Fall brunch and dinner cruises so you can enjoy the foliage on the water. If you are more of a Halloween person, check out the Halloween Murder Mystery Dinner Cruise!
Multiple Locations * http://ladykatecruises.com
Where to Eat in Central Connecticut
When you’re ready to take a break from all of the activities and grab some food, check out the places below! Central Connecticut has many amazing restaurants, but the three described here are especially fun in the Fall.
Goats N Roses
Goats and Roses provides one of the most authentic farm-to-table experiences in New England. As you pull into the parking lot on the farm, you are greeted by a farmhouse, tavern, general store, and goat yard. Grab a table – outdoor seating only – and pick one of your favorite farm dishes to eat. I recommend the Teriyaki Chicken Salad or Figgy Piggy Sandwich. After your meal, you can explore the property where you are likely to encounter some of the resident animals, like the chickens, peacocks, and of course goats!
86 East Hampton Road, Marlborough, CT 06447 * https://www.goatsnroses.com
Rose’s Berry Farm
Rose’s Berry Farm is open for Sunday breakfast from June through October. Despite its short season, it may be the best Sunday breakfast experience you have. Everything served at Rose’s is farm fresh and farm-to-table, right from the farm it overlooks. Sitting high above the rows of berries and apples, you can enjoy waffles, pancakes, and french toast topped with seasonal fruit. Savory dishes are also available, but even if you are usually a fan of savory breakfasts as I am, this is one time to go the sweet route for the berries!
295 Matson Hill Road, South Glastonbury, CT 06073 * https://www.rosesberryfarm.com/breakfast
Where to Stay in Central Connecticut
Most accommodation options in central Connecticut consist of your typical chain hotels: Marriotts, Holiday Inns, Homewood Suites, etc. These are great choices if are only using your hotel as a place to sleep while you explore the area. However, if you want to try something a little more traditional Connecticut, check out the options below.
The Inn at Middletown
This property was built as a private residence in 1810, and subsequently acquired by the State of Connecticut to be used as an armory. In November 2003, the Town of Middletown opened the Inn as “an upscale full service boutique hotel.” If you are looking for charm and location within walking distance to many businesses and restaurants on Middletown’s Main Street, this is the place for you.
70 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457 * https://www.innatmiddletown.com/ (Click here to book!)
Founded in 1776 during the American Revolution as a tavern and accommodation for shipbuilders who moved to town, the Griswold Inn has been in operation for more than 242 years. Its rich history follows that of America. You can experience what it was like to join fellow revolutionaries in the early years of the country in the tavern, or have a more upscale experience in the full dining room. The Griswold Inn also offers 33 unique bedrooms for rent: some have fireplaces, some provide a view of Main Street, and others overlook the water. If you want to step back in history on your visit to Connecticut, check out the Griswold Inn.
36 Main Street, Essex, CT 06426 * https://griswoldinn.com (Click here to book!)
*Note this page contains affiliate links. This means I may receive compensation for your use of these links, at no additional cost to you.
by Kelly | Sep 16, 2018 | Day Trips, Fit Travel, New Hampshire, North America, Travel, United States
This past weekend, I celebrated the New England transition from Summer to Fall in New Hampshire. I stayed with some friends in a cabin near the Vermont border. Throughout the weekend we engaged in both Summer and Fall activities, and enjoyed the beautiful, relaxing weekend that New Hampshire offered. You may not think of Northern New England as the most exciting area to go on vacation, but as the leaves begin to change this month, you should reconsider. There are many fun and adventurous things to do in this area!
Looking for other recommendations for New England Fall activities? Check out the Best Fall Activities in Connecticut post!
If you’re heading to New Hampshire this Fall season, definitely stay in a cabin. It gives you a more authentic nature experience in a very tranquil setting. You will also likely be closer to many of the outdoors activities in which you are probably looking to engage. There are cabins of all sizes and prices available on AirBNB (click here for $40 off your first reservation). If you love the cabin my friends and I stayed in this weekend, contact me for details about how to rent it!
View from above of the spacious, cozy interior of our cabin
When my friends and I rent a property with a full kitchen, we often cook all our meals “at home.” There are many local grocery and general stores around New England where you can pick up provisions for your own cabin. If you are in the Western part of the state and looking to eat a meal out, check out The Farmer’s Table Café in Grantham. This restaurant provides both a cozy and upscale feel inside. It is located near ski resorts and hiking mountains like Sunapee. Wood-fired pizzas are its specialty – and they are delicious – but all the local options on the menu are amazing. Service was a little slow when I was there for lunch, but if you’re looking for a laid-back weekend this place will fit right into your schedule.
Farmer’s Table Cafe
Local New Hampshire Activities
Don’t miss out on these quintessential New England outdoors activities on your next trip to New Hampshire!
New Hampshire has some of the best mountains and trails to hike. If you are an experienced hiker, you can challenge yourself with a 4,000-footer like Mount Tecumseh or Mount Washington. If you want to keep things closer to the ground, there are many trails available that circle lakes and mountains without requiring a strenuous ascent. My friends and I opted for the latter and hiked around Lake Eastham.
While I don’t consider myself to be an expert hiker, I’ve been on many hikes with friends who are experts. My best piece of advice for novice hikers is to look out for the colored paint or symbols along your trail. They will indicate which trail you are following and where your trail leads. You should be able to see the next colored marker from your current location. If you follow this rule, you will never get lost while hiking!
Example of a Marker on our Lake Trail
The swimming season in New England is wrapping up but a few exceptionally warm days in September may provide the last good beach days of the season. The lake waters in New Hampshire are pristine. They provide a refreshing dip that is welcome on a hot day or after an activity like hiking. Next time you are in New Hampshire, grab your towel and pick a lake at which you can relax and cool off.
Many lakes also have a variety of boats for visitors to rent
I really can’t talk about Fall in New Hampshire without mentioning apple picking. This typical New England activity is especially enjoyable in New Hampshire because there are so many orchards to pick from. My friends and I selected the King Blossom Farm. Though we went on a beautiful day in the middle of September, the farm was empty when we arrived! The owners gave us some background about the farm and described the different varieties available, including the heirloom mixes that had developed over many years. We then set off into the orchard to pick all the apples we could want. The trees were abundant with beautiful-looking fruit, and at less than $1/pound we couldn’t resist picking over 10 pounds! Any farm or orchard in New Hampshire would give you a similar experience, but King Blossom Farm is worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Dozens of apples sitting on the trees just waiting to be picked
The farm also had a farm stand with fresh vegetables, homemade fruit butters and local maple syrup
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by Kelly | Sep 9, 2018 | Asia, Day Trips, Travel, Vietnam
Last year, my friend Sarah and I went on a 2-day/1-night Halong Bay Cruise. Halong Bay (sometimes written as Ha Long Bay) in Northern Vietnam is one of the most beautiful places to which I’ve ever been. UNESCO designated the area a World Natural Heritage site in 1994. The Bay, which covers over 600 square miles, is home to 1,969 limestone islands. If you are planning to spend any time in Northern Vietnam, you should add Halong Bay to your itinerary. If you want to learn more about what to do in Hanoi while you’re there, check out my blog post on 48 Hours in Hanoi.
Read on below to learn what your 2-day/1-night Halong Bay cruise experience may be like.
Halong Bay Cruise – Day 1
Trip from Hanoi
The departure port for all of Halong Bay’s junk boats is about three hours from Hanoi. Your driver will pick you up from your hotel in Hanoi and drive you to the port. Along the way, you will probably stop at a rest stop/marketplace in the countryside. The goods in the marketplace are beautiful hand-made Vietnamese items like tapestries, glass bowls, woven fabrics, and lacquered vases. You know everything is authentic because you can see the goods being made right in the marketplace! Note that payment for everything, including food and drink, is cash-only. If you don’t have a chance to buy something on the way to the boat you will likely stop here again on the way back.
Port Arrival and Departure
From what we could tell, all of the junk boats departed from the same port. When we arrived there were hundreds of people waiting to board the myriad junk boats in the harbor. Our guide led us efficiently through the crowds to our dinghy that brought us to our boat. We were on board receiving the safety protocols within an hour of arriving at the port. We then had some time to settle-in and explore the three ship decks before the armada of junk boats made their way into the Bay.
Armada of Halong Bay cruise junk boats
Your visionsof Halong Bay may include a sole junk boat floating along by itself among the islands. In reality, most of the cruises travel the same routes at the same time. The boats are far enough away from each other that you don’t feel as though it is merely a ship caravan, but the only real difference among cruises was probably the accommodation and food quality. Though we were not on the most expensive cruise, we were impressed with everything our boat offered. The one issue was that WiFi was “available” but didn’t really work. Even so, this “problem” added to the secluded nature experience of the weekend.
Once our Halong Bay cruise had set sail, we were treated to the most delicious lunch. Dishes were served one at a time, and they just kept coming! There were vegetables, rice, fish, and other meat along with delicious sauces. All the food on the cruise was included, but drinks cost extra at about $5 USD per drink. If you buy drinks, you will keep a tab throughout the trip and pay at the end.
The dining room on our junk boat
Hang Sung Sot Caves
The Hang Sung Sot cave complex was the first stop for our Halong Bay cruise (and many other cruises). Hang Sung Sot means “Cave of Surprises”. Many of the islands have caves in them. The Hang Sung Sot cavern is one of the largest in the Bay. We spent about an hour hiking up to the cave entrance, exploring the cavern, and taking in the sights from a few hundred feet above the Bay. During our visit, we were told about the natural history of the caves and some Vietnamese folklore, like the importance of the dragon and the tortoise to the area.
Hang Sung Sot Cavern
View from the island with Hang Sung Sot Cave
Ti Top Island
Your next stop will be the beaches of Ti Top Island. Ti Top was a Russian cosmonaut who visited Halong Bay in 1962. During his visit to the Bay, Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh named an island after him. His statue is one of the first things you encounter when you arrive from your junk boat. Just beyond the landing site is a recreational beach with a swimming area, sand to lay on, concessions available for purchase, and even a volleyball net! Our cruise gave us about an hour to enjoy the area on the first day. We sat on the beach enjoying fresh coconut water and fruit, then spent some time swimming in the warm Bay waters. The one downside to the area is the presence of jellyfish, but overall it was a fun experience.
Statue of Ti Top that greets you on Ti Top Island
Ti Top Beach
Evening Activities Onboard
Upon returning to the junk boat, you have time to shower and enjoy a (complimentary) drink on the roof deck before dinner. With about 20 guests on board, you have plenty of space to spread out and grab a deck chair to watch the islands sail by. You also have the chance to meet some fascinating travelers from around the world. I encourage you to use your downtime on board to learn about the other guests’ experiences.
Roof deck of our junk boat
Dinner again consists of many different courses served individually. For this meal, the head chef puts on a show cooking the main dish on the stern of the ship! The V’Spirit Cruise chef put on a show for the guests with lots of fire and theatrics while cooking a fish-and-vegetable stir fry for us all to enjoy.
On-board cooking demonstration
You will probably have the option of trying to go squid fishing after dinner. When your junk boat anchors for the night and shuts off its main lights, your guide may hand out long rods with strings attached that you hold over the side of the boat in the hopes of catching squid. If you do manage to catch something, it will be served the next day for lunch. However, none of our guests had any luck fishing, so our boat had extra squid on board to serve us anyway.
Trying to spot squid for fishing over the side of the boat
Halong Bay Cruise – Day 2
You may have the option of an early-morning Tai Chi class on day two. After class, during breakfast, you Halong Bay cruise guide will tell you about the activities for the day ahead. These activities include kayaking among the islands, visiting a floating village, a cooking class during lunch, and a visit to a pearl factory on the way back to Hanoi.
I am not usually an early-riser or a morning person, but when presented with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a tai chi class on a junk boat roof deck while floating through Halong Bay, I had to take advantage of it. The boat’s instructor led the guests through a series of gentle exercises to help wake us up, get our blood flowing, and connect with the nature around us. No rooftop or beach yoga class has ever been as peaceful as this was.
Early morning tai chi class
Halong Bay used to be filled will permanent residents in floating villages. These consisted of rafts tied together with house structures atop them for living and schooling. The residents ate mostly fish caught in the Bay. They made money by selling goods to tourists on the junk boats. Recently, the Vietnamese government provided incentives for the residents to move from the floating villages into land communities. It is considered both safer for the residents and better for the environment for them to live on land.
While controversial in many ways, one downside of this policy for tourists is the lack of floating villages to now visit. Our tour group saw just one in the area in which we went kayaking. There was one resident who pulled up to our boat to try and sell some things, but the village wasn’t as active or bustling as it probably would have been years ago.
Woman from a nearby floating village selling her wares to tourists in the Bay
The majority of day two was spent kayaking in our own little corner of the Bay. Each junk boat has its own space in which to go kayaking: no other boats were in our area. We had the choice to just kayak around the bay or explore the caves and shores of the islands around us. Sarah and I opted for the latter. We had the best time traveling between the islands to see their natural beauty practically untouched by humans.
(photo credit: Sarah)
On the way back to port you will probably receiving a cooking demonstration and class from the head chef. We saw myriad vegetables transformed into beautiful flowers with a paring knife. Then, we were provided ingredients for spring rolls and taught how to add water to the rice wrapper, choose our fillings, and wrap the rolls. These became the first course in our filling lunch, the last meal on our Halong Bay cruise.
Vegetable flowers prepared by the head chef
On the trip back to Hanoi, we first stopped at a local pearl factory. Halong Bay is filled with oysters that the Vietnamese use to create pearls. We were shown how a pearl is initiated in an oyster, how the pearl forms, how it is harvested, and how it is made into jewelry. Of course, part of this tour included the implication that the tourists should purchase some of the final products, but I found the prices outlandish for Vietnam. Luckily, the sellers weren’t too pushy and we could admire the jewelry without buying anything.
Watching pearls pulled from oysters at the pearl factory
My Halong Bay cruise experience was phenomenal; I recommend it to anyone planning to go to Northern Vietnam! If you want to have the same experience as Sarah and I, you can book the cruise we took here: V’Spirit Cruise.*
Our global cruise group and guide!
*Note that if you use this link I receive some compensation at no extra cost to you. Thank you!
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by Kelly | Mar 14, 2018 | Caribbean, Cuba, Day Trips, Havana, Travel
Cuba has been my top bucket-list destination my entire life, and this past January I made that lifelong dream come true with a weekend in Havana! Most Americans think Cuba is off-limits for travel unless you have family living there or want to go with a humanitarian volunteer group, but after my roommate and her friends visited in December I realized how easy it is to travel there legally.
Are you an American wondering how to visit Cuba legally without an expensive tour group? Check out my post on How to Travel to Cuba!
Starting the trip
This past winter was brutally cold in New England, so when I suggested to my dad that we check out Cuba instead of our annual Martin Luther King weekend trip to Mount Tremblant in Canada, he was completely on board. We booked our flights and AirBNB accommodations, created our itinerary, reserved our activities each day, and two weeks later were headed for Havana!
We arrived in Havana early Saturday morning. Our AirBNB host met us at the apartment and let us in early so we could drop our bags before wandering around the city. Our hosts, Roberto and Hortencia, were the most helpful AirBNB hosts ever! They spoke no English and were very patient with my broken Spanish as they explained the apartment and surrounding areas. Roberto even offered to give us a guided walking tour of the city, but seeing as my dad doesn’t speak Spanish and I was already exhausted from an hour of communicating with them, I wrote down Roberto’s suggestions and we were on our way.
Photo from the AirBNB Balcony overlooking Havana and El Malecon boardwalk
My dad (right) with our incredible hosts Roberto (left) and Hortencia (center)
Fabrica de Tabac
Our first stop was the Tobacco Factory (Fabrica de Tabac), which unfortunately was closed for repairs. We noted the prices of cigars for later and continued on our way. Note that cigar and alcohol prices are fixed in the country, so you will not get a better deal by shopping around, and if a local offers you a “better deal,” they are probably selling fake products.
Next to the factory was El Capitolio, the capitol building and entrance to Old Havana. El Capitolio should look familiar, as it is modeled after the U.S. Capitol building. We went inside for a free tour of the rotunda, where the national symbols are on display as well as the tomb of the unknown soldier. I was most surprised to see the American flag on display along with all the other flags of North and South America, representing countries that helped shape Cuba’s history.
El Capitolio, under construction
Next we visited the La Floridita bar and restaurant, origin of the daiquiri and a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for many years. My dad and I each enjoyed an original daiquiri, which is lime-based and refreshing, rather than sweet like American strawberry daiquiris. If I were to return to one place in Havana for a drink, this would be it.
Museo de la Revolucion
After our drinks, we wandered over to the Museo de la Revolucion. Here, we learned so much about the years leading up to the Revolution before the January 1, 1959 overthrow of which the world is aware. There was also a lot of information about Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, two of Fidel Castro’s right-hand-men during the Revolution. After Cuba was won for the Communists, Che went to fight in Bolivia where he was killed by the CIA, and it is rumored that Camilo was offed by Castro shortly after he came into power to avoid a power struggle or a second revolution of the people more in favor of Camilo.
La Bodeguita del Medio
Continuing with our itinerary, we went to try a mojito on the roofdeck of La Bodeguita del Medio, the birthplace of the mojito, before venturing down to the Almacenes San Jose market. Here I found jewelry and beautiful artwork to purchase from the Cuban people. The market contains your typical souvenirs, so there is nothing particularly fancy, but it’s a fun place to look around and find something to pick up both as a memory from your vacation and in support of the local vendors.
Our last stop of the day was the Hotel Nacional, a large modern, luxury hotel on the waterfront El Malecon boardwalk. We thought the hotel must be government or military owned, so we just walked around without purchasing anything, but we found out later that it is privately owned so it is possible for Americans to have a drink and make purchases there. The coolest part of the National Hotel is the bunker system in the back from the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My dad was old enough during the crisis to remember the crisis it happening, and his older brother was in the Air Force at the time ready to respond if an incident took place. With this perspective it was fascinating to hear my dad’s thoughts on the bunkers, the most interesting being the realization that the Cubans were just as afraid of Americans shooting missiles back at them as we were of being shot at from Cuba. During our trip we also learned that the Cubans had no control over the missiles: the largest Soviet military presence in Cuba occurred when the missiles were placed there, not because of the American threat, but to prevent the Cuban people from taking the missiles from the Soviets.
Night One Dinner
For dinner walked to a restaurant on the water front to enjoy a pitcher of sangria and the most typical Cuban dish, ropa vieja. Literally translated as “old clothes,” this dish of shredded beef and tomatoes had the perfect amount of spice and tenderness for me to say it was the best ropa vieja I’ve ever had! After dinner, our itinerary included a night out with live music, but we were so tired from the traveling and walking of the day that we went right to bed. We had also been thinking of visiting Club 1830 for salsa dancing, but it was raining and we were told that the club doesn’t have a roof, so we would be the only ones there if we went!
Interested in your own Havana Itinerary? Check out the article One Day in Havana.
Countryside Day Trip
The second day of the trip was filled with a 10-hour tour into the countryside to see how Cubans outside Havana live. We began the day with breakfast at Locos por Cuba, where we met our tour guides Alex and Leo, two young economics and political science professors at the local Universidad de la Habana. We also joined up with the four other visitors, a couple from San Francisco also in Cuba on the Support the Cuban People visa, and two friends traveling together from Florida and Maine who were visiting on an educational visa (they were establishing connections for a return trip with community college students later this year).
On the Farm
After a two-hour van ride to Viñales, during which the driver stopped at a true pit-stop – a guy standing on the side of the road selling food and drinks he kept in the woods behind him – we arrived at our farm for the day and met the local family. When Castro took over Cuba and implemented Communism, all families were given a house, and those in the countryside were also given land. Because of this, there are no homeless people in Cuba! However, there is also no money to buy additional property, so generations of families live in the same house their family was provided in 1959. On this particular farm lived the grandmother, the father and mother, and at least three children. The house contained exactly five rooms: a kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, and a dining/living room. It was not a lot of space for a large amount of people, but the family didn’t seem to mind.
Table set for 9 by our gracious hosts in their living/dining room
Everything from the Land
We began our tour tasting the different fruits of the farm. The entire property is self-sustaining, with everything they need for consumption found on their own land. We tasted fresh oranges, plantain chips made in front of us from plantains picked from the farm, and coffee that was grown, harvested, roasted, and ground on-site. Even the water was collected and purified on the property, and the fish we had later for dinner was caught in the river running through the farm.
Exploring the Property
After exploring the area around the house, we went on a hike through the many acres owned by the farmer and his family down to the river and bat cave. We crawled our way through the bat cave until we were standing right under the bats: it was recommended we all wear hats for this part to avoid bat droppings on our heads.
Smiling, but also afraid the bats a few meters above us would wake up and notice our presence
On the way back from the cave we stopped by the river for a swim and to learn more about life in Cuba from our guides and the farmer we were visiting. It was wonderful to hear our guides sharing their opinions, both positive and negative, about various aspects of Cuban life, economics, and politics. One of the guides stated that he would like to see more democratic and capitalistic features in Cuba, but also to maintain the free education, healthcare, and housing on which so many people rely.
Finally, we were invited to share a meal with the family before heading back to Havana for the evening. The experience we had that day on the farm is something I will never forget, and I definitely encourage anyone who visits Cuba to consider this experience!
Fitness In Havana
Our final full day in the country included a 5-hour bike tour of the city in the morning, followed by rooftop salsa dancing lessons from locals in the afternoon. I was really looking forward to this day, especially the salsa dancing, but unfortunately got sick the night before. Regardless, I still went out and made the best of it, though every time my dance instructor asked if I was ok, all I could replay was “sí, sí, estoy bien,” rather than “I’m just trying not to throw up on you.” Please learn from my mistake and don’t let your guard down on any raw or potentially unwashed food in the country: I think that may have been my downfall!
Morning bike tour
Taking a bike tour allowed us to experience many areas of Havana that would have been difficult to get to from our AirBNB. The start of the tour was in the Vedado area of the city, which gave us the opportunity to ride in one of the classic car taxis! While my dad was very disappointed to learn that the only original part was the body, and that the engines were all old Soviet car engines from the 80s and the 90s, we were happy to get our old-car ride in for the trip.
The main stops of the bike tour included the Havana Forest, Columbus Cemetery, Revolution Square, Old Square in Old Havana, and El Malecon. Our tour guide was another professor from the Universidad, and our tour companions were two young British girls in Cuba on holiday for a week. Taking a bike tour in Havana is a great way to experience a large part of the city while also getting in your vacation exercise!
Metal sculptures of Guevara and Cienfuegos flank Revolution Square. As Castro would stand at the front and make his speeches to a filled square, his two other revolutionaries would be looking back at him.
Two British companions and our tour guide in Old Havana
Afternoon Salsa Dancing Lesson
For our last afternoon, we had signed up for rooftop salsas dancing lessons. We were picked up from our AirBNB, brought to the studio, and matched up with partners based on our gender and abilities (I have many years of basic salsa experience as well as other dance experience, while this was my dad’s first time learning it). Having a private lesson for over 2 hours was so much fun! My instructor began by dancing with me, and when we would try a move I was clearly unfamiliar with he would stop, teach me the move, and then continue dancing to practice. I felt like I was just out dancing normally, and yet had a dance partner who wouldn’t get frustrated if I was unfamiliar with something or messed up a move, but instead had unlimited patience to continue teaching me. My dad reported a similar experience with his instructor. After class we were returned to our AirBNB by the same driver.
Final Dinner: La Guarida
We made it a point to book reservations far in advance for dinner at La Guarida, considered one of the best restaurants in Havana and the place where anyone who’s anyone stops by at least once when they’re in Cuba: Madonna celebrated her 58th birthday here, and Beyonce dined here with Jay-Z on their most recent trip to the city. The building – like most in Havana – looks on the outside like it was once beautiful but is now about to crumble down on top of you. Once you get past the bouncer, you climb up five flights of crooked marble stairs past empty floors that are now ghosts of their former glory and opulence. However, once you get by all this and reach the restaurant on the top floor you are in for a wonderful surprise: La Guarida would be considered fine dining even in the United States. The decor is contemporary and the space is small, with many different rooms and two small balconies seating diners, but you feel special from the moment you arrive, and the food and drinks are incredible! While I was still somewhat sick from the night before and did not get to enjoy the restaurant as much as I wanted to, I highly recommend it and cannot wait to go back and try it again next time I am in Cuba.
Cuba is not off-limits for Americans, so long as you don’t mind an active vacation that involves staying in an AirBNB and eating in local, family-owned restaurants. There are some precautions to take and things to know before you arrive, but the people are super friendly, the city of Havana is safe, and the country of Cuba has such a rich, unique culture that must be experienced firsthand.
If you are interested in staying in the AirBNB or participating in the activities described above, you can follow the links below. First-time AirBNB users can get a $40 credit here: www.airbnb.com/c/kellys8303.
Salsa Dancing Lessons
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by Kelly | Feb 15, 2018 | Boston, Day Trips, Massachusetts, North America, Travel, United States
The city of Boston has a ton to offer, but if you want to get away for a day, there are exciting things to do in all directions: North, South, West, and even East!
Some of my favorite day-trip destinations from Boston are the Harbor Islands, the Cape, Patriot Place, Wrentham Outlets, Gloucester, and the Nashoba Valley Winery. If you have time, they are all worth checking out. However, I want to highlight a place I know well that is merely 30 minutes North of Boston: Salem, Mass.
Welcome to Witch City
Bewitched statue in the center of Salem
If you hop on the commuter train at North Station or drive up Route 1 for a half hour you may end up in historic Salem, home to the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s. Salem embraces its history of witchcraft and has many witch-related stores on pedestrian-only Essex Street. It also offers year-round haunted or historical walking tours and invites visitors to see its Salem Witch Museum at any time of the year. If you really want to experience Salem in full swing, try spending a day or a weekend there in October. Throughout the month, the town brings in street performers and vendors, features carnival rides, hosts a parade on October 1 to kick off festivities, and lights off fireworks on Halloween. Almost all visitors dress up in costume, especially on Halloween, so this is the perfect time to dig out your favorite werewolf, vampire, or even witch costume!
You can even take a self-guided walking tour of locations seen in the 1993 film “Hocus Pocus”: here we are in front of the Ropes Mansion!
If Halloween isn’t your favorite holiday there is still plenty of non-witch-related fun to be had in Salem (though I would strongly recommend going sometime other than October in that case). Also on Essex Street you will find the Peabody Essex Museum, with many fascinating exhibits such as a giant statue of “The Thinker” by Rodin, on loan from Paris’ Museé Rodin. On the third Thursday night of each month the museum sponsors a PEM PM night, complete with a theme (such as Dominican Republican culture or anime and comics), musicians, dancers, food, drink, games and activities, and a chance to explore the museum. Down by the water you can visit the House of Seven Gables, the actual house that inspired the novel of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne. If you prefer to just enjoy the food and drink scene in Salem, check out Far From the Tree Cider Tasting Room or the Sea Level Oyster bar with a rooftop deck overlooking the water.
Entrance to the Peabody Essex Museum
Large Rodin “The Thinker” Statue
PEM/PM Dominican dancers!
House of Seven Gables
Regardless of what you’re looking for, Salem is a great town to visit for a day or two near Boston!
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