Should you go to Cuba?

A vintage convertible -- the quintessential Cuban ride

For most Americans, whether to go to Cuba is a matter of legality. Does their trip qualify? The events of 50 years ago that led to the U.S. embargo are a distant history.

In Miami, where are I live, whether to visit Cuba is a moral and community question. Families remain torn apart, and the wounds of lost lives, homes, businesses still feel fresh to so many.

If you do go, my advice is to travel mindfully. Wander about; wave and smile. Take a cycle taxi or one of the motorized Coco taxis, and talk with your driver. Eat in private restaurants, called paladars. Stay in a casa particular — a local home, where you’ll see how Cubans live and put income directly in their pockets.

Yet even here, attitudes are shifting. With so much in flux in both the U.S. and Cuba, this spring was my time to go.

You can read about my trip and see photos and videos in my story for the Miami Herald.


What you need to know before you book a river cruise

A view of the Rhine

A decade ago, river cruising vacations weren’t even on the radar. Today they’re high on the wish list of nearly 60 percent of North American travelers, according to an industry survey. Why the shift? A fleet of sleek new ships, a growing list of itineraries – and attention-grabbing ads shown during Downtown Abbey – have brought inland sailing front of mind. Travelers who previously traveled only by land are now turning to the waterways, says A-list cruise agent Scott Kertes of Long Island’s Hartford Holidays. “The newest river cruise ships are well appointed with new amenities and levels of food and service that have come way, way up.”

Rhine river cruise

Our Emerald Waterways ship

In 2015, major river cruise companies are adding even more routes on a worldwide flotilla of more than 200 vessels. Most carry guests to the medieval villages of Germany’s Rhine, the Danube’s Imperial cities of Vienna and Budapest and the wine-producing regions of France. and Portugal. A handful navigate through the rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon, while ever-more ships are returning to the Egypt’s Nile. The newest river journeys explore the Far East, taking guests to untrammeled villages and ornate temples of Burma’s Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, Indochina’s Mekong and India’s Ganges.

Rothenburg on the Rhine

Rothenburg, one of the towns visited on our Rhine River cruise

Wherever they travel, river voyagers sail on boutique vessels sized for narrow rivers and locks; most carry a maximum of 190 passengers, and some accommodate as few as 36.
Though prices are higher than on many ocean cruises, amenities such as city tours, onboard wifi, tips and wine and beer with meals are included in most river fares. And while multi-service spas and elaborate show lounges don’t fit onboard, most river-going ships moor within walking distance of towns. Expert local guides leave travelers raving about the experience, says Morgan Scully of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Va. – and coming back for more.

To find out more about river cruising, see my story in this month’s issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.

On the Rhine


Philadelphia: A terrific — and underrated — city

You rarely see Philadelphia touted on the covers of glossy travel and food magazines. But it should be. The City of Brotherly Love may well be the most underrated destination for

Philadelphia City Hall

culinary and culture travel in the U.S., as my recent visit proved.
Let’s start with food. Philly is known first and foremost for its cheesesteak sandwiches; Italian and Pennsylvania Dutch comfort foods aren’t far behind. But what foodies forget is that the city lies near the sea and farm country – which translates into two remarkable food markets.

Every visit to Center City should begin (and maybe end) with breakfast or lunch at the Reading Terminal Market for spicy crab spread; a creamy tomme; mountains of shaved roasted chicken; a grilled sandwich stacked with roast turkey, chorizo and spicy goat horn peppers; fresh-baked Amish apple dumplings – even smoked pigs ears!

Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market

For visitors, getting to south Philly’s Italian Market  probably means a taxi, but the a strong through nine blocks of fish stalls, butcher shops, vege vendors and eateries from Vietnamese to Mexican – and of course, Italian —  is worth the fare.

Nature also serves up the raw ingredients for new American farm-to-plate menus dishes including short rib stir fry with mushrooms (Buddakan), pistachio pesto flatbread with housemade mozzarella (Garces Trading Co.), lollipop lamb chops with T, garlic, mint and mojito sauce (Indeblue), pan-seared scallops with roasted cauliflower and compressed apples in a curry vinegrette (Parc Bistroi), tea-brined chicken with cucumber radish salad (Square 1682)….you get the picture. The razor clams with ramps and seaweed salad at Petruce et al were delicately

Razor clams at Petruce et al in Philadelphia

charred to create a series of distinctive tastes within a single dish, while the roasted beets served with roasted duck breast had the beet-hating Husband sated and sighing.

Now that you’re waistband is popping, it’s time for a stroll. Most people think of this city as the birthplace of Independence, and that would be right. And while you should stop in to see the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center, you’ll soak up the past you wander through Center City, stroll around 19thCentury City Hall with its mansard roof, or pop into the Post Office flanked by WPA-era sculptures.  As you

The Liberty Bell

wander downtown, don’t forget to look up; the historic architecture is stellar (and almost outweighs the boxy horror of some of the 1970s infill projects.)

Culture, not history, was the draw for this particular visit. But since it had been a while since the last Philly visit – and since our feet can always use a break – we signed up for the Philadelphia Sighting Tourshop-on hop-off bus as a transportation mode.  The surprise: the tour itself was actually informative and fun, delivered by live human beings (imagine!) who are Philly natives who clearly love their city, warts and all. (Because we used it as transport, we heard bits of the tour from three different guides.)

On the sightseeing bus

From them we learned that The Foodery sells  500 types of beer, that the city has at least two kaoroke sushi bars, the best and cheapest crabs are in South Philly at 9th Street and Washington, that the city has the country’s largest brownstone structure (the Basilica) and America’s largest outdoor art collection (including the Mural Arts Project, with well over 100 murals citywide, but quite different in nature from Miami’s Wynwood Walls.)

Philadelphia's Rodin Museum

We had come to go to the Barnes, where former Perez Art Museum Miami director Thom Collins recently took the helm. We had figured we’d have time for visits to the Rodin Museum (home of to the most Rodin sculptures outside Paris) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well. But two days is not nearly enough time.

We did make it to the Penn Museum, a visual feast for anyone besotted with African tribal art, Egyptian pharaohs and Mesopotamian digs.

But the Barnes is, simply, staggering. By legal agreement, when the Foundation opened its new downtown campus in 2012, the salon-style arrangement of canvases and metalwork was preserved precisely.

While this decorative arrangement might have been somewhat suitable for a private home, it is definitely not the best arrangement for viewing the nearly 1,000 works by Renoir, Matisse, Gauguin, van Gogh, Cezanne, Soutine – plus a number of remarkable early Picassos. You long to see the 59 Matisses together in a single room, the Seurat juxtaposed with the Chicago Institute of Art’s Sunday in the Park, the 181 ethereal Renoirs in one heavenly space, the metal work together as a highlight rather than the afterthought it becomes.

Long before you make it to the Benin bronze on the second floor and the African figures nearby, your eyes will be glazed over, and you will need to head to restaurant for a Prosecco or take a break outside to admire the calming modernity of reflecting pools and angles designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

Street vendor in Philadelphia

In Philly, culture can’t be contained in buildings (and we’re not just talking about the colorful but polite personalities you meet just about everywhere.) So for dinner, we head into South Philly for dinner at Victor Café..

Victor looks and feels like an archetypal Italian restaurant: wooden booths, red-and-white checked table cloths, multipuciano on the wine list,  vongole with fettucine on the menu and hundreds of photos of famous people on the walls. But don’t look for mobsters or movie stars in these pictures. Victor is all about opera.

Those who greatest fear in life if five hours of Wagner need not fear. Arias here come in short bursts – courtesy of the wait staff. Philly is home to three major operatic schools, and talent here is enough to convert hip-hop devotees and country western lovers. (After all, what are those musical genres but simply riffs on musical story telling?)

And forget the buxom Brunhilda image. Some of the biggest voices came from slight young women svelt enough for a movie screen.

Even if opera isn’t on your playlist, this may be the ultimate birthday place, if only to hear the tried-and-true ditty in its most glorious form.

Our own waiter, John (who was heading the next day for Europe to join his boyfriend, a recent winner on both Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune), knocked us off our chairs with a poignant rendition of the My Fair Lady hit, Here on the Street Where you Live. It was worth the visit alone.



New York’s new Whitney Museum is here!


View from the new Whitney Museum in New York.

VIDEO: View from the new Whitney Museum, New York

The queue lasted from dawn until way after dusk on the first day of public

Queue at the Whitney Museum, opening day

Queue at the Whitney Museum, opening day

operation for New York’s new #WhitneyMuseum, leaving art  lovers plenty of time to wander the High Line and check
out the street festival of performances.

From the outside, the Renzo Piano-designed building has a clunky feel, more

Renzo Piano's Whitney Museum, New York / WOOLDRIDGE

like a factory than a showcase for some of the national artistic timeline of passion, strife, concepts and yes, beauty.

Inside, it’s a different matter altogether. Some 18,000 square feet under soaring industrial ceilings allow provide plenty of space for works and the visual breathing space that saves your brain from overload.

This initial exhibition, America is Hard to See, showcases the Whitney’s vast collection in way that has rarely been seen, with realistic works from Alice Neel and Edward Hopper, abstraction from Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, the poetic commentary of Jean-Michel Basquiat and expressive gesture of Willem de Kooning. And, this being America, plenty of political opinion.

But the art outside is as powerful…and not just the sculptures installed on the 13,000 square feet of terraces. The views — over the High Line, through the Meat Packing District, up to the Empire State Building, along the Hudson and across a sea of roof gardens to the tip of Manhattan — are a different kind of testament to America’s history, ingenuity and strength.



It’s India, darling!

On the royal lake in Udaipur

The modern world may be flat, but at this moment we’re in the India of a glorious past, of jeweled palaces and geometric gardens, tiger preserves and the exquisite white marble mausoleum that marks a timelessly obsessive romance. For two weeks we’ll be chauffeured through fabled Rajasthan on a private tour in a gleaming white Ambassador, the iconic conveyance of India post-Raj.

The tab: less than $2,000 for bed-and-breakfast, car and driver. And yes, that’s for two.

Pushkar, India. COPYRIGHT: Jane Wooldridge

With other meals, guides, museums, tips and the doctor — we’ll get to that — our vacation comes to less than $100 per person per day, plus airfare and shopping.

No, we didn’t languish in the five-star private enclaves that grace sleek magazine covers — though we did stay in several royal-owned boutique hotels that made us feel like pampered guests of a bygone time. And while our meals weren’t prepared by the stars of the Master Chef India TV series, we ate well enough on dal, chicken korma and the occasional plate of pasta.

Any English-speaker can easily catch the Metro from the airport to New Delhi and book arrangements from train tickets to tiger safaris online.

But The Husband has declared that he’s past his do-it-yourself-in-the-developing-world days. But we’re also not in for a group tour. And why should we deal with the hassles of luggage and public transportation when Namaste India Tours (  — a small family-run company highly  recommended by a friend — can take care of the details for such a reasonable price?

Read more here:

Looking for a frequent flier ticket? Here’s the latest trick

People often complain that they can’t use their frequent flier miles. When it comes to finding free flights, I’m usually successful — but it

INDIA: Frequent flier tickets often come with hassles including time-consuming searches, oddball routings and overnight stays at airport hotels. But when the destination is a place like India, Africa or Europe involving an expensive air ticket, the hassles are worth it.

takes some serious work and creative approaches.

Just this week I snagged two tickets for travel in May to Asia. What I quickly found is that booking the legs separately — instead of as a round trip — secured a ticket that “didn’t exist” when I tried to book it as a single itinerary.

Airlines steer you to their websites for booking by imposing a whopping fee if you book frequent flier tickets with a live person. If I’m saving $5,000 — as in this case — it’s still a good deal to pay $40 per ticket to use an agent. But not every agent is patient and savvy, and so I look up the options online before I make the call.

In this case, I wasn’t able to find tickets from Miami to Darwin, Australia — but I was able to find them from L.A. to Darwin. The Miami-to-LA leg was also available, but not as a “through” ticket from Miami to Darwin.

My return, from the relatively obscure port of Kota Kinabalu on Borneo, took a bit more digging. I’m buying inexpensive tickets ($50 each) from KK to the nearest major airport, Kuala Lumpur. I’m buying another cheap ticket ($100 each) from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, where I pick up my frequent flier tickets back to Miami.

True, getting free seats on the most convenient, direct flights is nigh impossible. Every other flier is competing for those same seats, and even trying to book them the minute an airline releases its first batch of free seats doesn’t necessarily work. (Airlines release seats at varying schedules, about a year out, but most add seats throughout the yearbased on the volume of paid bookings they get.)

But if the savings are significant enough — for an expensive ticket to Asia, Africa or Europe — the inconvenience of oddball routings and overnight hotel stays can be worth it.




Tribute to Maine’s Elephant Man

The Hope Elephants are something of a marvel. Their name comes from their location — in the tiny village of Hope, Maine, population around 1,500, about 20 minutes west of the tony hamlet of Camden. But the meaning fits as well. Former circus residents, Rosie and Opal, two post-menopausal Asian elephants, were brought here two years ago by Dr. James Laurita.

Labor Day Weekend, I went to one of the thrice-daily presentations at the Hope Elephants barn. It sounds like a touristy thing to do; it was anything but. For 30 minutes, Laurita talked about his student days working with his brother at Carson a&Barnes Circus as an jugglers and elephant tenders; how the circus led him to become a vet; how he went back to visit Rosie over the years. In 2011 he and his brother raised the money to build Rosie and Opal a state-of-the-art barn, complete with radiant heat beneath the sand floor.

His passion spilled out as he talked about the elephants’ injuries — at the trunk and feet of other female elephants in a matriarchal battle for dominance — took them through simple exercises designed to strengthen Rosie’s damaged trunk and Opal’s stiff leg. Both leaned in for a spray of the hose, then the hose went straight into thirsty throats and mouths. Six more circus-retired elephants are on a waiting list to come to the Hope refuge, but the massive tech-savvy barns they need don’t come cheap.

So it was with surprising sadness that I learned last week that Laurita, 56, died just days after my visit. Tending to the elephants late one night, apparently he fell and was stepped on by one of his charges. No malice, just an accident.

One of the great gifts of traveling is the things you don’t expect…the gourmet shop plopped unexpectedly in the middle of the countryside, the general store selling both guns and wedding gowns. The passion of a man who battled the forces of economics and what would seem to be common sense to make his odd dream come true. That’s worth celebrating, even at such a cost.

Scanning for an air deal? Grab a map

Amsterdam in spring, copyright Jane Wooldridge 2014

Amsterdam in spring, 2014

Just when you thought airline travel was getting oh-so-slightly easier (thanks to TSA pre-check lanes), the airlines have become even more difficult.

In the wake of the American Airlines – US Airways merger, schedules have rearranged in ways that benefit the airlines but often slam travelers.

And as anyone who has tried to fly recently knows, airline rates have gone, well, sky-high. We could explain the business case of why, but unless you’re an institutional-sized stockholder of an airline, you probably don’t care about the why. You just care about how you’re going to cope.

The answer: Invest some time in looking at the alternatives.

Multi-search engines like  and online agencies like Expedia and Travelocity are great for checking the obvious to find airlines and routes that might be cheaper than the travel plan that first comes to mind. But finding the best deals often requires human creativity.

Amsterdam 2014 / copyright Jane Wooldridge

Amsterdam 2014

For a recent trip to Amsterdam, the fares on our usual airline-of-choice bordered on ridiculous. With map in hand, we started looking for nearby cities served by lower priced airlines and hit on Dusseldorf — two hours away by car or train, and served by Air Berlin. To figure out our total costs, we added in the price of a car rental, estimated gas (which always costs more in Europe than we remember) — and found we could save hundreds on each ticket. Better yet, we were able to snag frequent flier tickets via a partner arrangement, which cut our costs to a fraction of what we’d paid if we’d flown directly to Amsterdam.

Planning an upcoming trip to Malta, Sicily, Nuremberg and Amsterdam proved more confounding. Many of the flights we would have found most convenient didn’t fly the day of the week we need to travel. Some of the routes were torturous — and time-consuming. Others were just more than we wanted to pay.

So out came the atlas. With the map on the table and the computer at hand, we looked first for low-cost airlines that fly into Malta or Sicily. Ryanair, Easyjet, Air Berlin, Germanwings and Meridana were all possibilities. (Some we already knew about, some we found through European low-cost website Opodo, and some we found by checking the airport website to find out which airlines serve them.)

Working backwards, we figured out that Ryanair flies to Malta on the date we need. (Easyjet’s service ends at the close of summer.) We looked at all Ryanair routes to Malta and searched from flights from Miami to those cities. The best deal and schedule, we concluded, was to Milan. Then we repeated the process for our other travel points.

End of the day, we’re flying Miami to Milan, with enough time to go into town for lunch, before flying on to Malta. Our trip with friends includes Malta and a ferry ride to Sicily. From Palermo, we’ll fly back to Milan on a supercheap flight, snag a cheap overnight hotel and fly on to Nuremberg. We’ll cruise from Nuremberg up to Amsterdam, then fly back to Miami.

Sounds complicated and time-consuming. You got it. But when you balance out more than $2,000 in savings, it was time well spent.

As for the those airline schedule changes, let’s just say that my old airline and I are undergoing a sort of trial separation. After sorting through all the options, I found a cheaper and easier way to get to Boston, where I go often. Turns out breaking up isn’t that hard to do after all.


Real customer service — and a smart survey to back it up

Far too often these days, ‘customer service’ is a sad joke. Take the cable company that took three visits, 12 hours and four guys to hook up our pre-wired house earlier this week…and was accomplished only after three-plus hours on the phone with dispatch. Or the estate sales company partner who bailed on us last minute with a raft of spurious excuses (but had bandwidth to handle another estate sale elsewhere in the neighborhood on the same date that was arranged far after ours.) The city official who insisted that a previously accepted permit application be reprinted in a different order — at a cost to the tax-paying applicant of $275. The off-shore digital “help” function that can rarely provide more than additional frustration. Or the mechanized answer system at … you name the company, it doesn’t much matter. It all amounts to “dis-service.”

So it is with surprise and delight that I report an airline customer experience that was not only pleasant, it was actually helpful.

This morning I was alerted by a computer call to my cell phone that my long-booked flight would be sadly delayed. Since my trip is a short one — less than 48 hours — to a professional conference, this was not good news.

I immediately phoned for a reservation agent, a process that involved a maddening digital phone system and, even at 5 a.m., a 10-minute wait. When the system asked if I would be willing to take a short survey at the end of my call, I punched yes, figuring I’m be on a tear about another dreadful experience.

Then Scott got on the phone. After a frantic plea for help, he actually … helped me. He told me he was going to investigate the issue, came back on the line to explain it was a mechanical delay but he was looking for alternatives, came back on the line again to explain he was trying to rebook me on a competitor airline that would get me to my conference around my original arrival time, and came back on the line to tell me the mission had been accomplished and he’d need just a few more minutes to be sure my ticket was properly reissued.

Wow. Wow. WOW. Was this some early morning fantasy?

The survey at the end of the call was, as promised, blessedly short. The single question: On a scale of 1 to 5, with five being ‘absolutely’ and one ‘no way,’ would I hire the person who had just helped me?

You betcha!

I’d not only hire that person, I’d hire that company … and will likely do so next time they and I are flying the same way. And, because good service should be rewarded, it’s only fair that I give the company name: Delta. After having suffered a raft of discouraging service issues with Delta some years back, I turned my back on the company. Now, I’m likely to at least check out their schedule and fares next time I travel.

Other companies should take note. As service providers of all types get bigger and more complex, they often assume they can dominate the marketplace regardless of how poorly they treat customers. It’s a foolish assumption. Competitive products often arise out of dissatisfaction with the status quo … that’s how Southwest, for instance, came into being. And with rapid advances in technology, today’s monopoly can be tomorrow’s legacy leave-behind. For proof, you need only look to VOIP phone providers, alternative parcel carriers and e-mail.

Good customers service might not stop technological advancement, but customer loyalty can staunch the impact of change.

Good customer service is also a form of living up to commitments…something our society could use a whole lot more of.

Opaque websites more useful, less scary

Opaque websites are intentionally mysterious. Hotels, rental car companies and airlines often have “express inventory,” which means bookings aren’t going as quickly as they’d like. But they don’t want to put out a super-cheap price attached to their names to avoid denigrating their brand. This allows travelers to snag cheaper prices than they might otherwise find, but without knowing the supplier’s name until after they’ve made a non-refundable purchase. The best known of these are Hotwire and Priceline; Travelocity and Expedia also sell “secret” hotels. Autoeurope offers a similar service on cars, though unlike other “secret” deals, these are refundable.

For years I’ve used opaque sites for car rentals with superb results. Because I don’t rent that often, I’m not racking up loyalty points with one particular car company. And all of the opaque sites work with major suppliers, so there’s no danger of getting saddled into a car from a local no-name company with no road support.

Hotels and airlines are a different matter. Days off are precious, and when it comes to airlines, I care far more about the airline I’m flying (those FF points have taken me worldwide more times than I can count) and the exact times I’m flying than I care about saving a few dollars.  As for hotels, though I don’t adhere to a strict loyalty program, I’ve  never felt comfortable without knowing the name of the hotel, along with its exact location.

I’ve now changed my mind — at least where hotels come into the picture.

Recently we arranged a trip over a high-season weekend to Amsterdam. It’s one of the glaring holes in my travel resume, despite a number of previous efforts to get there (including one trip that was whited out by a London ‘snowstorm of the century’). In cities I know well — London, Hong Kong, New York — I have strong opinions about my precise location. But in the case of Amsterdam, I only know the neighborhoods I’d find convenient. What I do know is that my credit card screamed every time I looked at the hotel choices. Once I added in taxes, the cost of just about every hotel at any star level was heading close to $300 per night — meaning a tab of $900 for a three-night stay. Ouch.

Following the old adage that looking is still free, I went to Hotwire and found it has improved significantly since the last time I booked a hotel there. On the site, Amsterdam is segmented into tight areas, so you get a pretty decent idea of neighborhood. Information about each of the “secret” hotels offered includes a rating by previous Hotwire customers about whether they would recommend the hotel. Better yet, it also includes the 4-out-of-5 rating from Trip Advisor. (The two companies previously were held by the same ownership group.)

Still, all that might not have been enough to tempt me alone. The price was. Instead of paying $300 per night for a 2- or 3-star hotel, we found a price of $180 per night for a 4-star hotel in a good neighborhood. Even when we threw in a $40 cancellation insurance add-on, the price for our stay came down to just above $600 — a good 33 percent discount.

Click! Now that we had paid, the name was revealed. It turned out to be a chic brand hotel that I’d seen elsewhere online for $325 per night…more than we would even have considered booking out right.

It will be a couple of months before we actually travel; I’ll report back then on the experience. For today, I can say that we’ll be checking out the opaque sites next time we’re heading to a major city. It’s at least worth a look.