The conference I had been attending in San Diego ended mid-morning on Thursday. I had been pretty busy with two presentations, being chairman for one of the sessions as well as 7am breakfast meetings for three of the four mornings, so I did not have a chance to see much of San Diego outside of the downtown area.
After checking out of the Omni San Diego Hotel and storing my suitcase, I walked down to the USS Midway, a former US Navy aircraft carrier that was now a museum ship and the largest aircraft carrier in the world open to the public.
The 'Embracing Peace' sculpture of the iconic sailor kissing a nurse just across from the USS Midway.
After buying my ticket at the pier and having my camera bag checked at security by a Navy Veteran, I headed aboard.
In the hangar, looking down at a Grumman F4F Wildcat. The USS Midway was built during World War 2 but was not commissioned until the 10th of September, 1945, eight days after the surrender of Japan.
A Douglas A-4 Skyhawk on one of the hangar elevators amongst diners at the museum cafeteria. The USS Midway was America's longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century and the only carrier to serve the entire length of the Cold War. It was also the largest ship in the world for the decade after it was first built.
One of the pilot 'Ready rooms'. Each air wing on the Midway had their own ready room. The air fleet of the USS Midway went through four generations of aircraft, ranging from the WW2-era Grumman F4F Wildcat up to the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet during the first Gulf War.
Deep inside the ship, the all important operations room.
And one of the several huge galleys on the ship. With 4,000+ crew on board there were alot of hungry people to feed!
On the carrier deck, looking back towards downtown San Diego.
A Grumman F-14 Tomcat, famous from the movie Top Gun.
Looking over to Naval Air Station North Island with the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) in port and a SH-60 Seahawk passing overhead. I had only intended to spend an hour or two at the USS Midway but ended spend just over three!
After the very interesting visit to the USS Midway, I walked back long the waterfront to Seaport Village and had a California Burrito for a late lunch.
I had messaged my friend Dan earlier in the week if he wanted to catch up again and we had agreed to meet up before my flight this evening to Havana.
After picking me up back at the Omni San Diego, we drove across the San Diego–Coronado Bridge. The USS Zumwalt leaving port, a $4 billion Stealth guided missile destroyer of the US Navy.
And on to the Hotel del Coronado.
And then had some beers in the afternoon sun and chatted about recent travels including his recent whirlwind first-class, four continent, around the world adventure.
We then went for a bit of walk around the very grand old hotel. Construction of the 399 room hotel first began in 1887 and then opened for business in February 1888. With all the wooden construction, a freshwater pipeline was run under San Diego Bay to deal with fire hazards, with water tanks and sprinklers also installed.
In the magnificant lobby. All U.S. Presidents since President Eisenhower have stayed at the hotel (with the exception so far of Donald Trump).
A large sandcastle out on Coronado Beach.
The sun getting lower on the horizon over the Pacific Ocean at the end of the day.
Marilyn Monroe. We then walked back to Dan's car and drove back over to San Diego.
As the sunlight began to fade, we went for a walk through the El Prado and admired all the beautiful buildings in the dwindling twilight. Originally built in 1915 for an Expo, the area has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976.
Looking across to the downtown area as we walk over Cabrillo Bridge.
For dinner we headed over to the Fish Market Restaurant and grabbed a seat outside by the bay.
Dan had recommended the monkfish. I had never tasted it before and after a quick google on my phone was abit taken back by this very ugly creature. I decided to tempt fate though and it was actually quite delicious!
It was soon time to head to the airport to start my trip to Cuba. Dan dropped me off at San Diego International Airport where we bid each other farewell and I thanked him again for his hospitality and the great evening tour of San Diego.
My flights for the trip to Havana were:
Day 0: Flying JetBlue (JB) from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale (SAN-FLL).
Day 1: Flying JetBlue (JB) from Fort Lauderdale to Havana(FLL-HAV).
Day 5: Flying Delta Air Lines (AM) from Havana to New York (HAV-JFK).
I had wanted to travel to Cuba for many years but the distance from Dubai had meant that it was always low on my list of travel priorities. From San Diego however it was much more accessible so I had made plans after the conference to spend a few days in Havana.
My one-way Jetblue flight from San Diego to Havana via Fort Lauderdale was a reasonable $235. Jetblue is one of the few US airlines to not charge for checked baggage so fortunately there were no extra fees.
Check in was relatively straight forward and the check-in agent asked to see my return ticket and my reason for flying to Cuba. As I handed over my Delta ticket to New York and my NZ passport I simply told the agent I was travelling for tourism. US citizens are technically banned by the US government from travelling to Cuba for the purposes of tourism, however there are twelve categories of travel which are not prohibited (such as 'support for the Cuban people') and which are ambiguous enough that the tourism ban is not strictly enforced.
There was no queue for security and after passing through the body scanner I was through to the gate in no time.
The Jetblue A320 waiting at the gate.
We boarded on time for the 10:30pm departure and after putting in my ear plugs and putting on my eye mask I quickly dosed off to sleep.
We arrived on time at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport just before 6am local time. Luckily the gate for my connecting flight to Cuba was just across from our arrival gate.
I was dying for some caffeine but the lone coffee shop near the gate had a massive queue so I quickly gave up on that idea.
Foreigners travelling to Cuba have to buy a tourist card and Jetblue had a desk at the gate where you buy one for $50. The US citizens on the flight also had to sign a one page document ticking one of the 12 authorised reasons for travel to Cuba. Although President Obama significantly eased travel to Cuba by Americans during the 2015 Cuban Thaw, as only the Cuban trade embargo can only be ended by Congress, US travellers still have to go through this bit of a charade if they wish to visit Cuba.
The Jetblue A319 for the flight to Havana waiting at the gate. We boarded just after 7:30am for the flight to Havana.
Free snack and drink handed out for the short ~45 minute flight.
Getting closer to Havana's José Martí International Airport.
And my passport and tourist card stamped into Cuba, my 105th country visited.
After collecting my suitcase from the luggage belt, I headed through to meet my taxi driver my Airbnb host had organised for me. I then tried to use the ATM but it unfortunately was having problems, so I queued up at the airport cambio (currency exchange) to exchange some euro's for Cuban convertible pesos (CUC).
Arriving in Old Havana after the ~30 minute ride from the airport.
My Airbnb flat for the next two nights. It was in a great location and only a few minutes walk from Plaza Vieja.
And the main bedroom with the all important (and super cold) air conditioner. It was my first time using Airbnb and for only $37 a night I was very satisfied.
I was super tired after the red-eye flight but with the excitement of arriving in such a unique and interesting place I had seen in many photographs and films, I grabbed my camera and headed out for a bit of a walk.
While alot of them needed some maintenance and repair, the weather-worn buildings with peeling paint were all part of the charm of Old Havana.
Pruebe los mas. Since 1982 Old Havana has been a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Chicos. I was starting to fade at this point so headed back to the Airbnb and crashed for a good one hour nap.
Just after 1pm I went out to nearby Café Havana for an espresso to help wake me up.
Followed by the roast chicken and rice for lunch. For less than CUC$5 with the coffee it was very reasonable.
Primary School. I then resumed my wander through Old Havana.
One hundred and ten.
One the many 1950's American classic cars on the streets of Havana. I never quite got used to seeing these beautiful old cars about!
Flag of Cuba.
I couldn't resist.
Pasear al perro (walking the dog).
Into the frame.
Outside La Gargola Guesthouse just after 4pm, the meetup point for a classic American car tour of Havana I had booked.
We split up into two groups for the tour. The driver for our car was Juan and Maritsa was our guide. We then headed off for our two hour tour of Havana.
Driving along side the other classic 1950's convertible on our tour.
Continuing our cruise down Paseo de Martí, a stately European-style boulevard and the first street outside the old city walls.
Coming up to El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building. Completed in 1929, it was the seat of government until the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
And along Calle Simón Bolívar with Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús up ahead, the country’s tallest and most beautiful Catholic church.
On Avenida Salvador Allende where one of the cars needed a bit of TLC to get her going again.
At the first stop of the tour, on Plaza de la Revolución. In the background on the right is the Ministry of Communications building with the image of Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos with the quotation "Vas bien, Fidel" (You're doing fine, Fidel).
And cruising past the Ministry of Interior building, with an image of Che Guevara with the quotation "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always).
Driving along the 140 acre Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón and home to more than 800,000 graves and 1 million interments.
At an intersection in Vedado.
Stopping at a park where we stretched our legs. Down by the river were some pigeon feathers and blood. Our guide Maritsa said it was from an animal sacrifice from a Santería ceremony, an Afro-American religion of Caribbean origin that is influenced by Roman Catholicism and that is becoming increasingly popular in Cuba.
We then continued our cruise through Vedado.
Through a tunnel under the Almendares River.
And along the famous Malecón, a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches for 8 km (5 miles) along the coast from the Almendares River to Paseo del Prado.
Driving past the Embassy of the United States, which had been recently reopened after the resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
In 2006, when the building was officially the United States Interests Section in Havana, the US began displaying messages on a scrolling "electronic billboard" on the building, including the George Burns quotation, "How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair". The Cuban government erected a large number of poles, carrying black flags with single white stars, obscuring the messages. The US removed the billboard in 2009 and the Cubans removed the flags in 2015 after the thaw in relations.
And at the end of our drive through Havana, outside the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where we thanked Juan for the fun and memorable tour through Havana.
We then went inside to the hotel bar for a drink. On the walls were some of the famous visitors to the hotel, including Winston Churchill, Jimmy Carter, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Yuri Gagarin.
And a large portrait of the late President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. During the Chávez governmemt, Venezuela traded tens of thousands of barrels of oil for military personnel, intelligence and assistance with social programs in order to maintain voter loyalty.
The bartender preparing some of the famous Cuban Mojito's.
We then enjoyed our drinks looking out onto the Malecón at the end of an amazing and very memorable tour!
I then started the walk back to Old Havana. Local kids playing football at Parque Antonio Maceo.
Playing cards in the street in Centro Havana.
At Paseo de Martí again.
And some more Cuban skaters.
Back in Old Havana where I stopped at a souvenir shop. I had managed to misplace my cap earlier in the day, so bought a Fidel Castro cap instead.
For dinner I headed to La Imprenta, a state-run (Habagaunex) restaurant in Old Havana. A very beautiful place situated on top of the ruins of what used to be La Habanera printing house back in the 19th century.
Fried fishcakes to start.
Followed by some tasty pork. Although not exceptional, the food was still very tasty.
And the profiteroles for dessert. The total bill for the three course meal was CUC$16 so very reasonable.
I then headed back to my Airbnb flat for some sleep after a long but eventful and fun day in Havana.
Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, a Catholic church on Plaza de San Francisco in the early morning on day 2.
Today's plan was for a bicycle tour around Havana. The meeting point was all the way in Vedado so I caught a taxi just off the Plaza for the ~6 kilometre ride.
At 8am at Ruta Bikes with our guide for today, Javier. Also on the tour today was Kim from Sweden and Brian from Australia. Kim helped organise bicycle tours for Europeans around the world and was in Cuba to organise one here, and had organised the bicycles through Ruta Bikes. Brian was in Havana for a few days before going on a 10 day cruise around Cuba.
The route for today's bike tour was to start off from Ruta Bikes (A) and then travel east through Vedado, Centro Havana (B) and Old Havana to the Ferry Terminal (C) and then catch the ferry over the bay to Casablanca. After visiting Morro Castle we would then bike east to the district of Alamar before heading south to Guanabacoa. After stopping for lunch we would head west back through Regla and then catch the ferry across the bay again back to Old Havana before making our way back to Vedado.
Cycling through Centro Havana. The local drivers were quite courteous and forgiving of us errant bicyclists weaving all over the road while taking in the sights. As it was a Saturday too, the traffic was quite light and not too intimidating.
At Terminal de Ferris we caught the ferry over the bay with our bikes.
Once back onshore at Casablanca, we cycled up La Cabaña hill to the Christ of Havana Statue. The hands and arms of Christ are placed as if he is blessing Havana across the bay. Javier said that a local joke is that it also looks as if he is holding a cigar in one hand and a mojito in the other.
Javier then filled us in on the history of the statue. The statue was carved from blocks of marble imported from Italy and is 20 metres tall and weighs over 300 tons. The statue was was inaugurated on December 24th, 1958, and only fifteen days before Fidel Castro entered Havana during the Cuban Revolution.
Looking from the base of the statue over the bay to Old Havana and beyond. On the far right is the former house of Che Guevara, where he lived while he oversaw the revolutionary tribunals and executions of suspected war criminals, political prisoners, and former members of the secret police.
At a military museum, where there was the wreckage of a US Air Force U-2 spyplane that was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960's. The pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was the only person killed by enemy fire during the crisis.
We then carried on to Morro Castle. Javier gave us some history of the fortress. In 1762, the British besieged El Morro, and captured it after significant barrage from their guns, mortars and howitzers after 3 months during the Battle of Havana.
Despite gaining control of Cuba, the British ceded the island back to Spain the following year with the Treaty of Paris in exchange for Florida.
We then cycled back through the streets and then continued east.
Bananas for sale on the roadside.
Soviet-era apartment blocks in the district of Alamar, built in the 1970's to ease a severe housing shortage in Havana.
Passing another Lada as we make our way west to the district of Guanabacoa.
We then stopped at a small suburban paladar for lunch.
I opted for a ham and pineapple pizza and a can of Cuban coke. The meal was simple but for less than CUC$10 for all four of us it was very reasonable.
We then jumped in the saddle again and continued our bike ride through Guanabacoa.
And back in Regla.
It was great to see some of Havana in the eastern districts of the city and away from other tourists.
Back by the bay, looking out to Havana Port.
We then caught the ferry at Lanchita de Regla back over to Old Havana.
Brian navigating the traffic along Calle Simón Bolívar.
Cycling past the Jardín Botánico Nacional in outer Havana.
We made it back to Ruta Bikes just after 2:30pm. The six hour bike ride through Havana and around the bay was a great experience and a fun way to see more of Havana outside of the main city. After thanking Javier for the very enjoyable tour, I started the walk east back to Old Havana.
In Parque Wifredo Lam, where there was a wifi hotspot just across the road and lots of Cuban sitting staring at smartphones and laptops. There is no personal home internet connections in Cuba so Cubans must make do with public wifi spots which are accessible by buying hourly access cards.
At Coppelia, a famous Havana ice cream parlor where a couple of girls are super excited to get some ice cream! Built in 1966, it was designed to resemble a giant flying saucer.
There were long queues with Cubans waiting to buy some ice cream on the warm Saturday with their hard-earned Cuban pesos (CUP). As a foreigner though I was directed upstairs to an airconditioned room and had a four scoop sundae for a still very reasonable CUC$3.
Coppelia was originally a project led by Fidel Castro himself to introduce his love of dairy products to the Cuban masses. It is one of the largest ice cream parlors in the world and holds up to 1000 guests.
Azul. I then resumed my walk east.
Pasar el rato (hanging out).
Inside San Cristobal Paladar, a famous restaurant where President Obama once dined when he visited Havana in 2015.
One of the government run shops in Centro Havana. This shop, ironically called Libre America, had quite a strange and limited selection of goods such as insect repellent, plumbing fittings and poor quality soap.
Calle Cuba. I then made it back to my Airbnb flat at about 4:30pm and had abit of a rest after the day's 35 kilometre bike ride around the bay and the 6 kilometre walk back to Old Havana.
At about 6pm I went out for a walk in Old Havana again. People queued up for some fresh hot churro's.
People enjoying some cervezas in Plaza Vieja.
At the very festive Bodeguita del medio. The bar is popular with tourists due to a handwritten note purportedly written by Ernest Hemingway that says "My daiquirí in El Floridita and my Mojito in La Bodeguita". The authenticity of the note has been disputed however and Hemingway's visits to La Bodeguita and his fondness for the mojito are supposedly just urban legend.
And the lively atmosphere at Café Paris.
It was great to enjoy some of the famous Cuban music from the energetic house band.
And where I had some simple chicken and rice at the end of another great day in Havana.