TRAVEL DESTINATIONS

Cuba - The Last Great Undiscovered Cruising Destination in the Caribbean

Why Cuba?

Bahamas/Caribbean
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By
Ed
Tillet

The United States maintains an economic embargo against Cuba. Tourist travel to the country is not allowed by Americans as of this publication date. However, there are opportunities to travel to Cuba by personal boat, charter, cruise ship or airlines if you meet the criteria as set forth by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control. Do your research and you will locate a company that can help you get there legally. Harmony Yacht Vacations and legalcubatravel.com are good resources.

Why Cuba?

Because it's the last great undiscovered cruising destination in the Caribbean! Home to more than over 11 million people, Cuba has just about everything you could want in a destination -- friendly faces, stunning scenery, beautiful beaches and an amazing culture.

Change in Cuba is happening more quickly than at any time in the past 60 years. The political and cultural makeup will certainly shift with American influence and commercialism as more visitors from the U.S. make Cuba a destination. Cuban officials estimate that 1.5 million Americans would travel there annually if all restrictions were removed, unseating Canada as the main source of tourism.

The U.S. and Cuba have a long and somewhat complicated history. Now independent, at one time it was heavily under the control of the United States both politically and economically. Interestingly, the United States had an ongoing interest in annexing Cuba during the 19th century.

During the 20th century, Cuba was subjected to an ever-changing mix of freedom, authoritarian rule, democracy and increased corruption. At the same time, American economic influence became more entrenched, along with a corresponding rise in the activities of the American criminal element. Cuba was the place to go during Prohibition and plenty of rum made its way north. Gangsters frequented Varadero and had homes in Havana. They were active in nightclubs, casinos and prostitution. The notorious Havana Conference of 1946, a meeting of various American Mafia and Cosa Nostra families at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, featured none other than Frank Sinatra as entertainment. The story of this notorious meeting is a fascinating, if not frightening, look at a little-known part of America's and Cuba's shared history. Havana Nocturne, How the Mob Owned Cuba  and Then Lost it to the Revolution by T.J. English (Harper, 2007) is a great read on that era of Cuba's past.

Geography

When you look at Cuba on a chart, the first thing that strikes you is its size. Cuba is big! It is the largest island in the Greater Antilles group. A voyage along the North coast from Cabo Maisi in the east to Cabo San Antonio in the west is a journey of 760 nautical miles. With the extensive pocket bays, many not presently accessible under Cuban rules, Cuba's coastline expands to 3,102 nautical miles -- 1,732 on the north coast and 1,370 on the south.

If going by boat, you need to decide early in your planning just how much of this interesting country you have time to explore. The topography of Cuba is among the most varied you will find anywhere in one country. From the beautiful sandy beaches of Varadero to the mountains and tropical moist forests, Cuba offers something for every taste.

From a mariner's point of view, long sections of the north and south coasts of Cuba are a coastal cruising paradise. It is possible to meander from anchorage to anchorage and enjoy the truly pristine beauty of cays that are visited only by the wildlife on them, and perhaps the occasional fisherman or charter boat. You may see only one or two other pleasure boats along the entire coast outside of the marinas.

Havana -- Goin' Ashore

Havana is one of the most exciting cities in the western world -- an electric and eclectic mash up that has to be experienced to be appreciated. If your boat is tied up at Marina Hemingway you can rent a car, but this is probably the most problematic way to experience Havana, given the challenges you'll experience parking and driving. You're far better off getting a cab into town and then exploring Havana on foot, using the available pedicabs, horse-drawn carriages, buses and taxis to get around when walking isn't feasible.

Cuba has excellent taxi services, and you may as well opt for one of the old American autos that are used as cabs. The ride will cost you about $15 to San Francisco Square in Old Havana, which is a great jumping-off point for your walking tour. As always, negotiate the fare before you begin the ride. There are generally one or two of the old cabs floating around the marina. A third way is to take the local bus into Havana. The cost is low, but the bus gets incredibly crowded and uncomfortable and we can't recommend this. You may also find the bus from the resort next door to the marina as an option.

Once in Havana, there is so much to do and see that you will find yourself at a loss for what to do next. There are museums of every sort, from the Museum of Matrimony to the always-crowded Museum of Chocolate. Music throbs from the bars, restaurants and clubs throughout the city. Locals play dominos, chess or checkers at tables set up on the sidewalk, surrounded by spectators. Sculptures you would expect to see in museums sit in open courtyards. Street mimes entertain children and their parents. The tourist crowd outside of Hemingway's old hangouts shuffle in and out, hoping to get a mojito or Cuba libre and feel nostalgic about their literary hero. Kids play ball in the streets. Jiniteros encourage you to try a new restaurant, or show you a casa particulara, or buy their cigars - and it's all done with a smile and sense of élan not found elsewhere in the islands. The obvious places, like La Bodeguita del Medio, Floridita and Hotel Ambos Mundos are almost always crowded these days, so look for some new adventures. The restaurants are getting better and safety has never been a problem. Enjoy... you're in Havana.

Santiago de Cuba

At the other end of the island is Santiago de Cuba. You can either take a flight, rent a car or come ashore by clearing into the country on your boat into the well- protected harbor. Santiago de Cuba has a more Caribbean feel than Havana due to its weather and culture. Proximity to Haiti resulted in French and African ethnic influences brought on by migration during the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791-1804. Santiago de Cuba is as vibrant and valued for its music and arts as is Havana. The music known as son, the foundation of salsa, originated in the region. The renowned Carnaval and Festival del Caribe bring the city to exuberance every year beginning in July. Casa de las Tradiciones in the city's Tivoli neighborhood is a pure delight. Musicians and dancers flock to the packed little club to gambol and mingle. Everyone is welcome.

San Juan Hill overlooks Santiago de Cuba and is where American Rough Riders and other volunteers turned the tide against the Spanish on July 1, 1898. An impressive park is perched on the hill with all manner of bronze and cannon plaques commemorating the battle. Sala Dolores is home to Orquesta Sinfonica de Oriente. Performances are held throughout the year and include music from around the world, featuring guest artists and stunning displays of talent by Cuban musicians of all ages. There are several hotels in Santiago de Cuba that cater to all but the most discriminating travelers. Advance reservations are recommended. Visit Parque Cespedes, the markets and walk the side streets. Depending on the time of year, it can be hot and humid during midday. In some parts of the city, the air can also be a bit dirty from exhaust fumes of motorbikes, diesel cars and trucks due to the topography. By nightfall, though, traffic slows and the streets go quiet except for music pealing from clubs, restaurants and street singers.

From Santiago de Cuba you are a short drive to Guantanamo province, where you may come across another music form known as Changui. A precursor of son and today's salsa, it's a style that originated in the early 19th century and stayed behind in the country while the more popular son moved to the cities. Ask around when you travel to Santiago de Cuba to find clubs, performances, restaurants and venues. You will seldom be disappointed. If you feel that you need a guide, visit one of the upscale hotels and ask the concierge for assistance. Cubans are congenial and accommodating to all reasonable budgets and personalities. And they are always interested in making a few dollars. Regardless of your destinations in Cuba, be prepared for a delightful experience and, above all remain patient and flexible. That's the Cuban way.

Ed Tillett is editor-in-chief, general manager of Waterway Guide Media. He began his travels to Cuba in 1998 with the University of Richmond. His work culminated in the production of a 75-minute documentary titled  Cuba: Rhythm in Motion (available on YouTube) in collaboration with Dr. Mike Davison. Ed's extensive travel to Cuba over the following 15 years resulted in Waterway Guide Media's release in February 2016 of Cuba Bound: The North Coast, a cruising guide for boaters. The next edition of Waterway Guide's Cuba will be released in February 2017 and will encompass the entire island. Co-authored by Addison Chan, the book will be an authoritative and comprehensive guide to Cuba for boaters, sailors and travelers. The new guide will also include bonus sections including the Florida Keys and The Bahamas, the two closest departure points for vessels leaving from American ports.

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Beyond Disney: 10 Cool Family-Friendly Places to Visit on Florida's Coasts
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OUTER SPACE. RACE CARS. ANIMAL SAFARIS. PIRATES.

These experiences are all part of a dream vacation to one of Florida’s famous theme parks. But the cool thing is that the Sunshine State offers these same topics as real, hands-on, family-friendly adventures. Here’s a Top 10 to try.

1. St. Augustine Alligator Farm & Zoological Park

Kids who love dinosaurs will love this park. Founded in 1893, some of the oldest and largest alligators are in captivity here. Plus, the Land of Crocodiles exhibit features 24 global species including the African dwarf, rare Nile and familiar North American crocodile.

Beyond crocodiles, “Some visitors like the colorful parrots, others prefer our python cave, the nesting wading birds in our rookery, or our wildlife shows,” says John Brueggen, director.“The more adventurous enjoy zip lining over the animals.”

Where to Dock: Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor

2 .Daytona International Speedway

race cars on the Daytona International Speedway
Daytona International Speedway | Credit DIS

The NASCAR season kicks off on February 19, 2023, with The Great American Race – the Daytona 500. However, any day is perfect for a speedway tour. The hour-long tram ride hits the highlights from an infield stop at the start/finish line to a view from high atop the tower seating. At a stop at the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, kids can enjoy a wow moment looking at Michael McDowell’s 2021 Daytona 500 victory car.

“The Magic of Lights returns to the Speedway’s World Center of Racing in November through Jan. 1. It’s a dazzling display of more than 1 million sparkling lights and magical scenes, all viewed from the comfort of the guest’s vehicles,” says Russell Branham, Southeast Region director of track communications.

Where to Dock: Daytona Beach Marina

3. Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex

Chat with a real astronaut. Train on high-tech simulators inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Go behind the gates of a working spaceflight facility. Experience microgravity like inside the International Space Station. The 42-acre complex on Merritt Island brings to life the U.S. space program’s epic story in an up-close, hands-on way.

“Kennedy Space Center is best known for rocket launches like the historic Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Now, it’s known for the commercial companies with rocket launches happening almost every other week,” says Rebecca Burgman, senior manager for public relations and communications. The Visitors Complex offers some of the closest public launch viewing locations in the area.  

Where to Dock: Titusville Marina

4. Mel Fisher Treasure Museum

Lift a real gold bar at the famed treasure hunter’s museum in Sebastian, on the Indian River waterfront. “Kids especially like to look, touch and feel the weight of a solid gold bar from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the most famous and valuable shipwreck to ever be recovered,” says Nichole Johanson, the museum’s director and Fisher’s granddaughter.

“The bar weighs about five pounds, and you can still see the markings that tell its story like ownership, tax, purity, assayer and weight.” Kids get a fun and educational treasure hunt game to do while exploring the exhibits, with scavenger hunt items and riddles.  

Where to Dock: Sebastian Inlet Marina

5. Countryside Citrus

Children jumping on a "jumping pillow" on a bright sunny day
Courtesy of Countryside Citrus

Oranges are Florida’s top agricultural product, and its freshly squeezed orange juice, soft-serve orange ice cream and orange slushies are some of the kid-friendly draws at this Vero Beach farm. Another is the Fall Festival and Corn Maze in October.

“There are activities such as a jumping pillow, kiddie zip line and air cannon, not to mention the maze and great food offerings,” says Cheryl Roseland, owner-manager. Kids and parents can U-Pick strawberries from the farm’s patch from December to February. Countryside operates its El Sid Taqueria on Ocean Drive in Vero Beach, a more convenient location to marinas for fresh citrus ice cream and slushies.

Where to Dock: Loggerhead Vero Beach Marina

6. Everglades Safari Park

To ride on the wild side, travel less than an hour west of downtown Miami on Route 41, the Tamiami Trail. The chance to take an airboat tour through the Everglades National Park is well worth the time!

An airboat is a flat-bottomed open-air boat with an aircraft-like propeller in the back and a car engine for power that can glide over the waterways and sawgrass of the glades at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. On a half-hour tour, see wildlife, alligators and anhinga birds. Guides make stops to talk about natural and human history, such as how Native Americans used cat tails to make natural gauze.

Where to Dock: Black Point Park & Marina

7. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

The words “under the sea” have a whole new meaning when sight-seeing America’s first undersea park in Key Largo. At 70 nautical miles, it’s a huge natural water park. You can go canoeing and kayaking, fishing and swimming, or choose a glass bottom boat tour, or a scuba and snorkel tour.

“The snorkel tour is an excellent way for families to experience the Park,” says Tim Linafelt, communications manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks. “After a 10-minute coaching session, swimmers can get up close and personal with coral reefs and marine wildlife.” Plan ahead by checking out the park’s new 360-degree coral cam that streams a live feed. Lemon sharks, parrotfish and angelfish have made on-camera appearances.

Where to Dock: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Marina

children snorkeling the shoreline at the Dry Tortugas with crystal clear blue watersu
Dry Tortugas | Credit Yankee Freedom III

8. Dry Tortugas National Park

Play in a 19th century fort in this seven-island park located in the Gulf of Mexico. To get there, book a ride on the Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran that departs from Key West for the two-hour, one-way trip. Then, have kids watch for Fort Jefferson on approach.

“The enormity of the fort is indescribable. It’s the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere – made with 16 million bricks. It’s fun to explore with its endless halls,” says Piper Smith, VP of marketing for Historic Tours of America. Beside exploring the fort, it’s fun to swim or snorkel around the outside of the moat. The waters are filled with tropical fish, lobster, turtles and game fish.

Where to Dock: Dry Tortugas National Park

9. Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Sharks, sea turtles and manatees, oh my! These sea creatures star in exhibits at this marine research organization’s aquarium in Sarasota. “Our resident turtles and manatees are much loved, each with its own personality, and they also provide valuable educational opportunities.

For example, green sea turtle, Hang Tough, resides in a specialty rounded exhibit after being blinded in a boat strike. Families can see and understand how Mote biologists care for her while also highlighting the negative impacts of unsafe boating,” says Sean Stover, communications coordinator. Make the visit extra special with an Adopt an Animal Program, which includes everything from sea turtles to sea horses plus jellyfish and octopus.

Where to Dock: Longboat Key Club Moorings

10. Air Force Armament Museum

Florida’s northwest panhandle is a national center for military aviation. Pensacola is called the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” and is the official home of the Blue Angels. One hour east, this museum sits across from Elgin Air Force Base.

Kids whose favorite toys are airplanes will light up at the number of crafts on display during the drive into the grounds. Look for World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Gulf War aircraft, as well as the fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird. Inside, please- touch displays include a fighter cockpit simulator.

Where to Dock: Two Georges Marina

THREE MUST-PLAY WATERFRONT PUTT-PUTT GOLF COURSES

palm trees on a minigolf course surrounded by turquoise waters
Courtesy of Fiesta Falls Mini Golf

Playing putt-putt Mini Golf is a ‘must- do’ shore thing on a Florida vacation. Best of all, many courses are near the beach. Lighthouse Cove Mini Golf in Jupiter is one block from the white sands. The two 18-hole courses weave around sea life, waterfalls and boats in a tropical fishing village theme. Play both! A new app lets golfers order drinks without leaving the greens.

Likewise, you can nearly see the sea from Fiesta Falls Mini Golf in St. Augustine. A 60-foot ship is a focal point, plus eight waterfalls make for cool fun. On the west coast near St. Petersburg, the Smugglers Cove Adventure Park in Madeira Beach is 18-holes around a pirate theme. That’s not all. Golf with gators! Win or lose, afterward you can stop to feed live alligators in an educational exhibit.

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Fun at Florida's Boat Shows
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Whether You're Buying a Yacht or Not

Two dark grey mega-yachts docked on the water at the boat show
Credit Informa Markets

The twin sets of upward sloping on the superyacht, Thunder, looked to me like stairways to heaven. To say these were only a small part of the eye-candy features of this 164-foot Oceanfast, one of the largest yachts for sale on display at this year’s Miami International Boat Show, says a lot.

Inside, the master suite boasted a ceiling retractable Smart LG TV, chandeliers in the main salon were part of the $8.8 million asking price, and a 22-foot-long crystal blue pool surrounded by sun loungers on the foredeck proved irresistibly inviting on this warm February day.

Best of all to me was the upper deck dining salon and its floor-to-ceiling windows. I could imagine cruising the world and looking out at breathtaking ports from this perch. And it afforded an incredible view of the enormity of the Miami International Boat Show, which is spread out over six downtown locations. Last year, nearly 100,000 attendees walked the docks, and sales were just shy of $1 billion.

I wasn’t in the market for a new boat. Window shop yes; buy no. Still, I wouldn’t miss visiting the Miami Show and many others held in the Sunshine State each year. That’s because these marine events offer so much more.

“Like a festival for boaters, hundreds of exhibits display a variety of vessels, from kayaks to luxury yachts. Food vendors and entertainment attract audiences of all ages. Several large boat manufacturers or brokers host hospitality events on board luxury yachts or in air-conditioned tents, catering to clientele who love to talk about boats,” says Andrew Doole, president of the U.S. Boat Shows division of UK-headquartered Informa Markets, a leading global exhibitions organizer that owns and operates five major Florida shows. “The shows present a way to see the latest in marine products and how to enjoy life on the water.”

Shows Aplenty

Visitors walking the docks at the boat show surrounded by multiple mega-yachts
Credit Informa Markets

Second to Alaska, Florida boasts the most coastline of any U.S. state at 1,350 miles. Add a year-round climate conducive to boating, and it’s easy to see why the marine scene is big here. Each year, the state hosts close to two dozen boat shows. The calendar runs from September to April, corresponding to the top tourism months for visitors from the north.

In September, there’s the three-day Daytona Beach Boat Show, and the Suncoast Boat Show closes out the season in April. In between, Informa hosts its shows: Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in October, St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show and Jacksonville Boat Show in January, the Miami show in February, and Palm Beach International Boat Show in March.

“Record-setting attendance at the St. Petersburg and Sarasota shows in the past year now rivals the big shows in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Miami. In fact, the annual boat show held in downtown St. Petersburg’s waterfront is the second largest event in the city, behind the Firestone Grand Prix in terms of attendance, revenue and logistics,” says Cindy Dobyns, president and owner of AboveWater Public Relations & Marketing, who handles press for the show.

What’s Happening under the Tents?

Exhibitor for "Electrosea" discussing the product with a customer

Beyond boats for sale, you can discover so many things to see, do, eat and drink, toe-tap and clap for at Florida’s boat shows.

One of the most fun sights at the Miami Boat Show was watching a professional flyboarder in action at Pride Park in AquaZone. Standing on a skateboard-size board attached by a hose to a jet ski below that powered the water toy, dual jet streams of water propelled the rider some 15 feet in the air above the 40,000-gallon freshwater pool.

Pros also gave the public a wakeboard experience via a simulator. Crystal Kayaks, Seabobs and Hobie Cats were brands featured for a demo at the Fort Lauderdale Show. In Palm Beach, the intercoastal waterway served as the natural aqua zone. eFoil electric surfboards were an especially big hit.

New last year, the St. Petersburg Boat Show partnered with the Annapolis School of Seamanship to offer one-hour on-water training sessions held multiple times daily. Topics included Women at the Wheel, Basic Boat Operator and a Junior Captains Program. All were free. The only catch is buying tickets ahead of time and pre-registering for the sessions.

Seminars are a sought-out reason to attend boat shows. Every show offers them, and many shows invite local celebrity speakers. A good example is the Jacksonville Show, where last year Captain Tim Altman of HooDoo Sportfishing Charters and founder of the Wahoo Junkies brand gave two talks on wahoo trolling with bait and high-speed trolling.

One of the best-known seminar presenters on Florida’s boat show circuit is Captain Don Dingman, star of the Hook the Future TV show. Dingman hosts interactive fishing clinics full of demos for kids ages four to 16. At the Fort Lauderdale Show, each kid received a free Hook the Future/Carolina Skiff custom rod and reel combo. It shows how boat show seminars can hook the whole family.

Fred’s Shed is worth the cost of admission if you’re a DIY fan. Launched over a decade ago by the Chicago- headquartered National Marine Manufacturers Association, this up close and personal educational experience is held at NMMA events like the Miami Boat Show. Topics range from installing marine electronics to detailing and service and maintenance tips.

Food and entertainment make shows extra festive. There’s no need to leave the fun. On-site at the St. Petersburg show, for example, you can gobble up everything from stone crab claws to Greek gyros, street tacos and wood-fired picanha steak.

The Windward VIP Experience at several shows includes an open bar, wine and spirit tastings, gourmet food such as oysters on the half shell, as well as early access to the show and a shady air-conditioned oasis to sit and relax. Most shows feature live bands with oldies, classic rock and top 40 hits on tap.

View the Boats

A center console passing by a big yacht in front of a house on a canal in Florida

Of course, it’s the boats that float these shows. “All types of watercraft are featured, including fishing boats, cruisers, ski boats, pontoons, inflatables, personal watercraft, and more,” says Erin Johnson, administrative director of the North Florida Marine Association that puts on the annual Jacksonville Show.

Vendors, from national brands to local shops, exhibit and sell all the boating go-withs. There are nearly 100 of these at the Suncoast Boat Show, and more than 1,000 at shows such as in Fort Lauderdale.

Mega and superyachts are here too, just like Thunder. You’ll find the bulk of the 100- to 200-foot-plus vessels at the Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami shows. All it takes is the price of a show ticket to walk the docks and dream.

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Florida's Amazing Creatures Challenge
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Sea turtle swimming through coral reef in clear blue waters
Sea Turtle | Credit Matt Botha

“WHAT’S THE DEAL with a flamingo wearing a top hat and puffing on a Cuban cigar or a mustached manatee strumming a guitar at a tiki party?” That’s what many travelers wonder when they come to the Sunshine State.

The answer is rather simple. From beaches and coral reefs to everglades and tropical islands, Florida is home to a diverse array of ecosystems. Toss in a balmy year-round climate, and it’s got habitats that spawn a dazzling display of marine life.

These amazing creatures are so beloved by Floridians that they’ve been integrated into the local pop culture in celebration of the state’s indigenous beasts. Native aquatic creatures are elevated into iconic symbols, reflecting the region’s diversity, unique groove and reverence for the water.

TRACK DOWN ICONIC IMAGES AND FEEL LIKE A FLORIDIAN

close up view of a flamingo
Flamingo | Credit Pixabay

While you roam around Florida this season, you’ll likely visit the state’s many marine sanctuaries, research centers and protected habitats. But Marinalife also challenges you to join the local fun by finding caricatures, logos and iconic symbols that playfully incorporate these unique creatures into images directed at everyday life.

You’ll discover many of them on sports teams’ logos or mascots, bar napkins, restaurant menus, clothing (shirt, hat, etc.), pool floaties, ads for products, road signs, products in stores, souvenir shop merchandise, glassware, food and beverage labels, boats, flags and more.

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