Should one experience the Havana of today that we have been hearing about for so many years, or the mass market Havana of the future which will inevitable lose what has made Havana such and iconic place for the last 50 years.
In March, Michelin debuted their South America guide. Surprisingly, this is Michelin's first venture into the Southern Hemisphere! Brazil was the only country on the list, with 16 restaurants featured.
Alex Atala's Sao Paolo based D.O.M. received two stars (equivalent to "excellent cuisine, worth a detour") and was the highest rank awarded. Rio de Janeiro featured six restaurants; all receiving one star (equivalent to "A very good restaurant in its category"). The restaurants are Lasai, Mee, Olympe, Oro, Le Pré Catelan and Roberta Sudbrack.
You can be sure that we will be visiting them on our upcoming tour of Rio for Carnival.
The United States of America adds its name to the list of countries where same-gender marriage is legal throughout the country.
It is obvious that discrimination is falling, and the freedom to love and marry who we wish is winning, but which will be the next country?
Australia: Same-gender couples who have lived together for more than two years achieve "De Facto" status, which grants many of the rights that marriage provides. This indicates a definite step in the right direction.
Slovenia: This is our bet for the next country to legalize same-gender marriage. On March 3, 2015, the Slovenia Parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill to extend the freedom to marry to same-gender couples. Now the bill waits for the President's signature.
Countries Where Same-Gender Marriage is Legal
The Netherlands (2000)
South Africa (2006)
England and Wales (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
Finland (signed 2015, effective 2017)
While traveling, I learn a lot about great healthy and delicious food while traveling that I like to prepare for friends during summer dinners that is easy as uno, due, tre!. Summer is finally here and two things come to mind: stay in shape so I can take it all off at the beach/pool, and can't wait for the Zoom summer cruise to the Mediterranean in September. I think about our cuisine aboard the SeaDream Yacht and want to share one of the favorite healthy recipes that I learned onboard.
MEDITERRANEAN SHRIMP IN A SHOT GLASS
Uno - Ingredients and initial preparation:
Shrimp: 20 whole cooked medium size, cleaned, deveined and 20 fine chopped cooked medium size, cleaned, deveined
Guacamole Creme: 2 ripe avocados pitted, 2 garlic cloves fine chopped, 1tbsp creme , 1 tsp lemon juice, salt/pepper (put in blended until consistency is a smooth creme)
Cocktail Sauce: 2 c. mayo, 1 c. cream, 4 tbsp ketchup, 1 tsp paprika, 4 drops sherry and cognac (mix until consistency is smooth)
Gazpacho: 1 garlic clove, 1/2 a red small onion chopped, 1/2 red and 1/2 green pepper chopped, 1 c. seeded peeled chopped cucumber, 3 c. tomato juice, 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp white wine vinegar, 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1/4 tsp ground black pepper, (put in blended until consistency is smooth; chill)
Due - Serve:
Mix cocktail sauce and chopped shrimp, fill shot glass with 1/3 cocktail sauce mixture, 1/3 guacamole creme and 1/3 cold gazpacho, top with a whole shrimp.
Tre - Enjoy!
A lot of people ask me if we can really run legal trips to Cuba. My answer is, yes of course U.S. Citizens can travel to Cuba legally. Zoom Vacations has already hosted a few trips to Cuba in the last year alone, permitted by a People-to-People Cultural Exchange license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, and is offering a third in October of this year.
This program is an exception to the embargo laws banning U.S. Citizens from traveling to Cuba. First offered by the Clinton Administration for a brief period, the Obama Administration has allowed the program to once again continue in order to encourage more contact between Americans and citizens of the Communist-ruled island.
This means that you can now fly from the U.S. mainland directly (most usually from Miami) and can come back the same way, and clear U.S. Customs and Immigrations as if you were flying in from London. You are also allowed to bring back books, art and music without violating the embargo laws. Of course, this program of legal travel to Cuba by U.S. Citizens can be withdrawn at any time by the U.S., especially with a change of administration.
Traveling to Cuba with Zoom Vacations is easy, legal, and educational. To do it otherwise could mean civil penalties of several thousand dollars and/or criminal prosecution.
It has been months since I returned with our group from Cuba, and I have to say that the experience has remained emblazoned on my memory. I can't seem to forget the wonderful people I met, the unparalleled architecture we saw, and the beautiful cultural performances we witnessed, such as an inspirational choral performance. It is amazing how little our group knew about Cuba when we arrived, and how much insight we gained by our visit.
Perhaps it is the gorgeous painting I bought in Cuba (my favorite in my home) hanging over my bed that keeps Cuba forever on my mind, or maybe it is the reminiscing with fellow Zoom Vacations travelers over the experiences we shared that we know few Americans get to encounter. Whatever the case, I haven't stopped thinking about our time there.
The whole time we were in Cuba, our minds were in overdrive, constantly making connections and drawing parallels and distinctions between our home countries and other places we've visited. Many people say that you should go to Cuba now before things change, and I know they are right. We may be nearing the end of an age, and it is an era that I can promise you do not want to miss.
The US LGBT community and Cuban people have a lot in common. Like Cubans, gay people know first hand what it is like to be oppressed. And it's not a surprise that Cubans have turned to (visual, culinary and musical) art to express and assert themselves. We visited a privately run restaurant in the beautiful retro home of a gay couple. We enjoyed their hospitality, and enjoyed great conversation.
Indeed, Cuban food is best enjoyed in the many private restaurants that have sprung up throughout the country. Privately owned, they strive for fair prices, good service and delicious food. In Havana, we met lots of gay people at a gay venue where we learned that the high art of drag is alive and well and that Gay Pride celebrations are popping up in major cities around the island. We also learned that gay marriage is being openly discussed in government and has a lot of support. Music and art are thriving in Cuba. Private art galleries and craft markets are easy to find. Cuban art is very affordable and high quality. The one thing that impressed me about the Cubans I met was not only their kindness, but how open they were in discussing their lives and Cuba's unique position in the world at the moment and where they hope to be in the future.
They look up to the US culture and government. So, it's no surprise that our gay group felt very welcomed in Cuba and that meaningful exchanges were had.
Zoom Vacations is constantly fine tuning trips to make them better and better each time. Some changes and additions are subtle but significant. Here is a list of current and upcoming changes to our roster of award winning trips:
Zoom China - Upgraded hotel location on the iconic riverside Bund. Great shopping area and great river and skyline views of the Bund from our new hotel in Shanghai.
Zoom Argentina - Added an insider tour of the Teatro Colon to the itinerary. If you have even been to the Paris Opera House, you won't want to miss this. The welcome dinner is now at one of the top restaurants in South America, which was likened by one guest to Alinea in Chicago, considered the world's best restaurant.
Zoom Rio Carnaval - Now this trip includes Samdadrome tickets for the main Carnaval parade.
Zoom New Years - A Zoom Lounge will be available on Ipanema Beach with beverages and snacks while you sun tan and watch the hot Cariocas enjoy the beach. Also, a private Corcovado tour has been added to the itinerary.
Zoom Southern Africa August - Cape Town upgraded hotel and confirmed dinner reservations at the hard to get in Test Kitchen.
Zoom Peru - Confirmed dinner reservations at some of the best restaurants in town such as Central and Astrid & Gaston.
Read about our tour to China this May
The biggest misconception about China is that the food is all the same or is weird.
For some, Chop Suey, mysterious, gooey, MSG, salty and deep fried come to mind. However, the reality is that China is a humongous country whose culture is one of the oldest in the history or mankind. So, its foods are just as varied, flavorful, elaborate, and delightful as its geographic locations.
Every city we visit on Zoom China offers a different cuisine. For instance, Shanghainese cuisine is punctuated with hot spicy peppers, and because of its location on the water it highlights ample seafood. In Beijing, Pekinese food incorporates a lot of vegetables; and in Xian the food has a middle eastern flair because Xian was the end of the Silk Road, a vast trading network that lasted for a thousand years, which started in Eastern Europe, snaked its way through the Middle East, and ended in China.
Of course, because cities in China, like Shanghai and Beijing, are very international, the food scene has changed and some of the best French, continental and fusion restaurants can be found in these cities. So, whenever you have a taste for home, western style restaurants are never far away and in fact are very popular with the locals.
Read about our tour to China this May
The world is changing faster than ever. Communism has been reduced to a philosophical ideology that does not translate well to running a government. These are the lessons learned by Cuba and China.
Cuba is finally set to openly embrace capitalism by welcoming more U.S. travelers to an island that has been frozen in time for over 50 years. This means that U.S. citizens will be able to travel there with more ease, use credit cards and bring back Cuban products like hand rolled cigars and rum. At this time all travel to Cuba is limited to fully pre paid packages, requiring a U.S. Department of Treasury permit and Cuba Visa to travel there from Miami. Cash is the only form of payment while on the island. Typically, only non touristic activities are allowed. However, a properly designed itinerary will take you to powder white beaches, the finest restaurants in Cuba serving locally caught lobster, and excellent Chilean wines. You can also visit pop up gay bars and the most exclusive art galleries. Currently, one can bring back as much art and books as desired from Cuba.
As Cuba becomes more accessible to the United States Cuba's old world charm may start to look more like Miami Beach or San Juan very soon. Luckily, you can join Zoom Cuba for New Years and see for yourself what it's all about before things change forever.
Likewise, China is acting more like the West than it's old former proletarian ways. The government ruling party may say it is communist, but the government machinery is very capitalistic. China's luxury hotel offerings are multiplying so quickly that Zoom Vacations upgrades hotels practically every year. Zoom China 2015 is no exception with the addition of the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund, offering magnificent Shanghai Bund river and iconic skyline views. Also as a sign that its doors are open to foreigners, China is making travel there easier with visa waivers. For instance, you can travel to 11 Chinese cities including Shanghai, Xian, Guilin and Beijing for 72 hours or less without a China tourist visa.
While China is ahead of Cuba in terms of capitalistic ventures, it will be no time at all before Cuba starts making visible efforts at catching up with the other first world economies.
Zooming around the world to places like India, Myanmar, and southern Africa just got easier for citizens of 40 plus countries including Australia, Canada and the USA:
For India, you no longer have to go to an India consulate to apply for a visa. As of November 27, 2014, you may now apply for and get a tourist visa-on-arrival (TVoA) online, entitling you to enter India anytime within 30 days of the approval. The electronic travel authorization, which will be in the form of an email received from the Indian authorities, will entitle you to a 30-day stay in India. On arrival, simply present the authorization to the immigration authorities who will then stamp the entry into the country.
For Myanmar, a country with few consulates around the world, a simple online registration, which takes between 7-10 days to approve, is definitely the easiest way to apply for a tourist visa. It costs $50, and like the India visa, you will receive an emailed pre-approval letter confirmation that can be presented on arrival and the visa stamp placed on your passport.
For Southern Africa, it gets even easier to see this culturally rich region. As of November 28, 2014, you can now receive a UNIVISA upon arrival in Zambia or Zimbabwe. The UNIVISA costs $50 and will be valid for 30 days, as long as you remain within Zambia and Zimbabwe for hotel overnight purposes. It also covers Botswana and Namibia day trips without the added cost of a visa fee to those countries. At a later stage other popular tourist destinations such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar are expected to be added to the list of UNIVISA participants.