Spring has always been the smoothest operator in the room. It is the best-dressed season, the only one that conquers the cold, yet is not about to let things get uncomfortably warm. Spring offers us hope and victory. It smells like a warm fragrant breeze, with just enough chill in the air to keep things cosy. It’s also shoulder season, propping up a summer of high prices and big crowds. The Spring Traveller knows this is the best time of year to travel, and here are some choice picks for places to travel to.
Besides the Keukenhof Gardens, featuring its famous tulips and lilies, the canals of Amsterdam blossom with life in the spring. The outdoor patios fill up, music starts floating down from the terraces, and the city parks get busy. Much like other Northern Hemisphere cities, residents break out of their winter shell to enjoy the first real breaths of warm sunshine. Attractions, prices and accommodations get tougher with each passing week, until summer kicks in and the Spring Traveller must move on.
The weather’s always great in Cuba. A little hot perhaps, but there’s always a beach nearby. With direct flights from Toronto to Havana, Canada is the number one tourist market with the largest island in the Caribbean, with over a million Canadians landing every year. Many of us are happy to laze away in an all-inclusive bubble, but popping it for a couple days will reveal a country in transition with itself and its history. Old Havana is being restored, excellent musicians seem to never stop playing Guantanamera, the rum is first rate, and the food is improving. Cuba is on the verge of a complete transformation, and if you've never been, now's the time to go. Cigar in hand, of course.
Paris in Spring Time. Three words, and you can smell the warm baguette, taste the Bordeaux, see a mime’s heartbreak on the banks of the Seine. Cole Porter and Nina Hagen musical tributes notwithstanding, the Capital of Romance is most alive in spring, when new relationships find their mark and old passions are reawakened. Unfortunately, spring is such a popular time of year, it signals the start of high season, and all the costs that come with it. The Spring Traveller never puts a price on love. But the Spring Traveller doesn’t have to stick around too long to get his or her fix either.
Yosemite National Park
What I love most about Yosemite National Park is that there are geologists who believe the oldest national park in the United States is in fact a super volcano getting ready to explode and obliterate half the country with it. So the Spring Traveller best strap on the hiking boots and get a move on, while the waterfalls are at their finest and the summer crowds are still at bay. With ice and snow melting, the rivers and creeks are flush as the forest reawakens. There’s magic to see at Yosemite Falls and Cook’s Meadow, but if it’s still a little too chilly, the Spring Traveller can always head south for warmer climes. Who knows, one day the super volcano might blow. But rest assured, the Spring Traveller will be well out of harms way.
Our national capital flaunts the gifts of a Dutch princess each spring with its own world renowned Tulip Festival. 600,000 visitors swing by the “Tulip Capital of North America”, as the Big Freeze relinquishes its hold on a grateful population. The best places to see the tulips each year are from Parliament Hill, Commissioners Park or along the paths of the Rideau Canal. In early spring Ottawa also hosts a Maple Sugar Festival, for those who like their spring sweet. While the Spring Traveller is not averse to chasing beaver tail, the next destination looks even further to towards the north.
The Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are sweet discoveries for the Spring Traveller. The capital cities of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn have medieval old towns to rival any in Western Europe, and beautiful countryside to explore too. Shops and boutiques sell fantastic art, clothing and unique knick-knacks, while each country boasts a nightlife with everything from old school drinking holes to the latest in club warfare. The Spring Traveller is not afraid to trip off the beaten path, for true beauty and adventure has a habit of showing itself in the unlikeliest of places.
Victorians are very proud of their Butchart Gardens, as well they should be. Gardening is a tasteful affair, and spring is the ticket. With summer crowds yet to arrive, the Spring Traveller can enjoy the best of the gardens, followed by high tea in one of the city’s excellent teahouses. Keeping within the genteel nature of the visit, roam amongst the Butterfly Gardens, or wander down Antique Row or Mile Zero. The Spring Traveller enjoys distinctive elegance, and the allure of old world charm. As for the not too distant cousin Spring Breaker, well, he’s chugging buckets of beer with the rest of the kids in Cancun.
The US Embargo that isolated Cuba is dropping as fast as a chicken without a parachute. The country is going to change fast, which means tips like these below will probably have to be overhauled in the next 12 months. Still, over one million Canadians visit Cuba every year, making up 40% of all visitors to the country. We enjoy Cuba’s weather, its people, beaches, and some might argue, the break from our American neighbours. If you’re planning your winter holiday in Cuba, here are some handy tips.
1. The Dual Currency
Cuba’s dual currency is confusing for everyone. Tourists use the Convertible Peso (CUC), while locals use the Cuban peso (CUP), which is valued almost 25 times less. Tourists can’t buy in local stores at local rates, while locals are effectively frozen out of the tourist economy. US currency is subject to surcharges and lower rates, so only bring Canadian dollars. And watch out for the common scam of being charged in CUC, but given change in CUP.
2. Your convertible peso goes far
Locals working in tourism have a distinct economic advantage. Tipped in CUC, they’re effectively earning 25 times more on the peso. A few convertible pesos in tips are greatly appreciated, and often lead to significantly better service.
3. Save $25CUC for departure tax
Come back to Cuba, but before you leave, don’t forget to leave the entire country a nice tip with this $25CUC departure tax. Make sure you have cash as no credit or debit cards are accepted.
4. Close but no cigar
Cuba famously makes the best cigars in the world. They cost a fortune at home, and only less so in Cuba. Watch out for counterfeits, typically sold with the line of “my brother works in the factory.” Top brands – Montecristo, Cohiba, Romeo y Julietta – are expensive even at the source.
5. If you’re taking an informal tour, agree on price first
Tourist dollars are the prize. Separating you from them is the contest. Always agree on prices beforehand for sightseeing, boat and snorkelling trips or prepare for extreme gaps in what you thought you had to pay, and what you actually do.
6. Bring gifts for organizations
Many Canadians bring toys, stationery and clothing to give to locals. There is lots of controversy as to whether this does more harm than good. Best advice I got: tip for good service; give gifts to friends; donate to charities and organizations.
7. Internet is slow and not always available
For a country that prides itself on education, the lack of Internet access is disappointing. Some hotels have slow, expensive access. The Good News: the Cuban government has set up 118 internet providers around the island. The Bad News: it will cost around $4.50 an hour - way beyond the financial reach of most locals, and wildly expensive for tourists too. This is all likely change dramatically as Cuba opens up in the coming year.
8. Tip according to local standards
Here’s a guide to how much to tip:
Taxi drivers: 15-20% of the fare in CUC
Porters: CUC 1.00 or more if you have lots of bags
Chambermaids: CUC 1.00 per day
Guides: CUC 1.50 per day per person (if you’re with a group)
9. Eat in somebody else’s home
Part of Cuba’s economic reform has been the opening of private restaurants, known as “paladares.” With tables set up in living rooms, patios and gardens, local chefs and homely service are wowing tourists in Havana. Cuba Absolutely has compiled an excellent list of paladares in Havana.
10. Don’t take any local money home with you
Unless you want the money as a souvenir, or plan on going back in the future, try not to leave the country with any Convertible Pesos. The currency is not accepted outside of Cuba, and no bank will change it for you.
Check out Here is Havana, an outstanding blog from US-expat and Havana local journalist Connor Gory.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.