Gay Travel in Cuba

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. 

 

New at Zoom Vacations

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

China: The biggest misconception

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 End of Communism for Cuba and China?

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.

Several Countries Expedite their Visa Procedures

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.

Magical Myanmar

Myanmar is the newest Zoom Vacations destination (March 12-18, 2015).  For sometime now I had been waiting for the right time to visit Myanmar, which many had told me is a very special country.  Sandwiched between India, China and Thailand, Myanmar has been influenced to some degree by the best of these 3 iconic cultures.  

 Myanmar is called the Golden Land because there is always a 24 karat golden domed pagoda within eyesight.  For 50 years after English colonialism ended, Myanmar was sheltered and isolated by various dictatorships and military governments.  Until recently the country had seen very little tourism within its poor tourism infrastructure.  Today, however, Myanmar is quickly developing a luxury tourism infrastructure that is putting it on the bucket list of every discerning traveler.  Recently, Zoom Vacations was honored to be one of only 17 international travel professionals and media to be invited on the inaugural sailing of the 5 Star M/V Sanctuary Ananda from Mandalay to Bagan. 

 What I discovered along the way is a country of charming, hospitable, deeply spiritual and accepting people.  Truth be told, what made the trip so enjoyable for me was the ability to travel on the Ananda along the Ayeryawaddy River, visit temples, markets and villages, then return to the comfort of the Ananda.  The Ananda is the newest most stylish boat on the Ayeryawaddy.  But in addition to the luxurious surroundings, another thing in which the Ananda excels is the food.  The kitchen is personally overseen by the former executive chef at the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental.  He was even kind enough to offer an onboard cooking demonstration and shared his love of cooking and simple, yet mouth watering Thai soup recipe.  Every meal was something to look forward to and nothing (except for some breakfast dishes) was ever repeated.  Lunch and dinner were perfectly paired with just the right wines every day.  

 But Myanmar is not just about the Ayeryawaddy River. There are also Inle Lake, a picturesque fishing community, and Yangon, with its bourgeoning art scene.   Plus, of course the Chinatown night market, reclining Buddha, and Scotts Market, which are also to be seen and experienced. 

 Today, Myanmar is quickly developing a luxury tourism infrastructure that is putting it on the bucket list of every discerning traveler. For instance, three years ago Myanmar saw 300,000 visitors; this year there are 2 million visitors and counting. 
 
Myanmar is also perfectly combined with Laos and or Thailand. Contact me for more information.

Finding the Next "It" Spot

People often ask us how we go about selecting new destinations for Zoom Vacations tours.  We actually go about this in a number of ways.  The main way is that while on our tours, our travelers often tell us the places they would like to visit.  We really listen, and especially when we start hearing the same destinations mentioned over and over, it moves to the top of our radar.  Also, destinations who often contact us to create tours to their locales.  We have noticed that when destinations reach out on their own to attract LGBT travelers that these same destinations often have the background support and resources necessary to organize a truly memorable trip.

Once we have selected the destination, we bump up our research, verifying the best times to visit, and we make a plan to visit.  We always scout out a destination before developing a tour.  While there, we tour dozens of hotels, restaurants, and sites, finding the best of the best, and identifying opportunities for creativity.  

 For instance, I am heading to Myanmar this month.  It is a destination about which many of our travelers have enquired, and coincidentally, it is presently "all the buzz" in the travel community.   Its mystery and decades of isolation has peaked the interest of so many of us.  While there, I will be finding the best hotel(s) and river cruise to host our future group, and I will personally interview tour guides and explore various excursions.  I will also be looking for venues where we can add our own sense of magic to this magical country.

How Do We Decide Where to Go?

A l lot of people ask us how Zoom Vacations chooses a group trip destination and how we develop a trip.

Zoom Vacations chooses a trip destination the same way that it develops a trip - thru in-person research and relationship building.   Every Zoom Vacations tour begins with a research trip to the prospective tour destination to assess whether it is gay-friendly, the variety of accommodations and activities available, as well as physical beauty and appeal of the destination.  

There is no substitute for getting a feel for a destination in-person, walking thru every step of a future trip and face to face relationship building.  This translates into a better experience for our guests. Every Zoom Vacation is a combination of carefully orchestrated activities and events as well as free time to explore the destination.  Therefore, I am constantly traveling the world in search of the next perfect destination and to better understand how to make our next Zoom Vacations trip a success.  Next on my list; Myanmar and Laos.

Why Safari

We had a question come into the office the other day that I thought I would answer for other readers as well.
 
Dear Joel,
 
I live in San Diego and we have an awesome zoo here. Why do you recommend doing a safari in Africa?
 
That is a great question!   This is like saying that you have a subscription to a gourmet food magazine, so why would you eat.  Traveling to Africa and seeing the Big Five up close and in their natural habitat is something everyone should experience at least once in their life. It is sheer magic.  Every moment is unpredictable, just like nature.  You never know if you will see a lion and lioness mating, a leopard taking down an impala, a pair of zebra frolicking, or a baby rhino curiously approaching your vehicle.  
 
But it's not just about the animals.  The landscape plays just as much a role in the magic.  On June 22, UNESCO declared the Okavango Delta its 1000 World Heritage site. One of the unique characteristics of the Delta is that the annual flooding from the river Okavango occurs during the dry season, with the result that the native plants and animals have synchronized their biological cycles with these seasonal rains and floods. It is an exceptional example of the interaction between climatic, hydrological and biological processes. 
 
The Okavango Delta is home to some of the world's most endangered species of large mammal, such as the cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion.  I am headed back to southern Africa with a group in literally just days to experience South Africa, Zambia and Botswana again, and I just cannot wait!  Let the magic begin! 

 

China, the Time is Now

Human beings are instinctively obsessed with the past and future, life and death, the yin and the yang. These reasons are why China is such a fascinating place to visit at the moment. 
 
I just returned from China and was once again reminded why it is a country that shows you much about your past and gives us a glimpse of how the future will look.   So much of what we eat, do, think, and how we live today took root in China many years ago.  For instance, pasta has been incorporated into many of the world's delicious cuisines and without which many of the scrumptious Italian dishes would not be the same; paper which lead to books, printing and a vehicle by which to educate; silk which is omnipresent in fashion and house wears; iron and steel which is found in almost everything we use today and without which we could not build skyscrapers, large ships and bridges and other important structures; porcelain dishes on which we eat today; Buddhism's various philosophies such as Buddhism and feng shui.
 
China is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world.  While the Chinese are proud of their legacy, they are busy creating a new future for themselves and the world.  China is changing so quickly that the China we know today will probably be a different place in our lifetime.   The Chinese thinking is also changing almost as quickly as the urban landscape.  Every time I return to Beijing and Shanghai I am amazed by the newest skyscraper and the ever present cranes, which guides love to refer to as China's new national bird.  China is also taking steps to decrease pollution in Beijing which is a source of a lot of discussion.
 
China is a fascinating country.  The time to go is now. Zoom Vacations recently upgraded all hotel offerings in China with the best service and locations at each destination.  Check out the detailed itinerary and you will see why.

 

To Listen, or not to Listen...

Before you take a trip, it is always a good idea to talk to friends who have been to the destination, and pick their brains for tips and ideas of what to do, and the best places to stay and eat. Especially if you have a lot in common with them, or travel the same way, their advice can be invaluable.
 
One word of caution.  When someone tells you the name of a hotel where you just have to stay, or a restaurant that is the best restaurant in town, you always have to remember that destinations are not static, and the latest and greatest thing to see when you friend visited may not be the latest and greatest thing now.
 
New hotels pop up or older properties go through extensive renovations almost every year in virtually every city in the world.
 
So, by all means, talk to your friends, but always stay open to your own adventure.

Perception Versus Reality

We travel to places that we perceive to be safe and desirable and limit our travel experiences to exclude places that we perceive as unsafe and undesirable. 
Sometimes this is because the perception has not caught up with reality.  Such was my realization during a recent research trip to Nicaragua.  Once a civil war torn nation, Nicaragua has become the darling of the travel industry in Central America.  
 
Recently named by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the Top 10 destinations to watch in 2014 and considered a safe haven in Central America by The Economist, Nicaragua possesses abundant natural verdant beauty, incredible volcanoes, gorgeous beaches, UNESCO colonial towns, excellent paved roads, lovely people, and up-and-coming gay-friendly boutique to ultra luxury hotels, and is less than a 2.5 hour flight from the USA. All of this at very affordable prices.  Look for our upcoming trip to Nicaragua!  

Investing in Travel is Investing in Oneself.

When I look back on 2013, it is interesting to review which memories stand outfor me. It wasn't any of the bigger purchases I made. 
No, the first and most important things that come to mind are several of the trips I took, and the unique experiences I had in those destinations.   
 
A few highlights include watching a cheetah stalk an impala in South Africa, drinking caipirinhas with new friends on the beach in Rio at sunset, and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
 
Traveling has the power to inspire the mind, heal the soul, and energize the body.  It gives us great memories to think about when things aren't going well, and it helps us create tighter bonds with the people who matter to us.  Just like people matter more than things, to me travel matters more than things.  
 
We have had guests on our tours whose lives have been changed for the better because of the unique travel experiences they have had or due to relationships they have built through traveling.  And the more you travel, the more you make connections between similar things in different countries.
 
Traveling isn't merely a part of a fun life.  It is an essential part of a healthy life, and maybe even a healthy planet. I am reminded of one of my favorite travel quotes:
 
"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends."
 ~ Maya Angelou

 

What Goes into Planning Our Gay Group Tours

Creating the most amazing trips in the world for a discerning group of gays, their family and friends, is no small feat.  Our travelers are well travelled and are always wanting the latest, best, trendiest and most sought after destination.  
 
As LGBT travelers we are used to being pioneers. With that in mind Zoom scours the world not only for the most up and coming destinations but for how to take Zoomers there in comfort, style and safety.  In the last years Zoom has flown to far away places like Japan, South Africa, Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil (usually at the invitation of governments ready to welcome the gay traveller) just to name a few, to meet with hotels, and local guides, to taste the local cuisine and find just the right place for our Signature Zoom Events.  
 
Every Zoom destination is well researched personally by me and or Bryan Herb, Zoom's co-owners.  No detail is a mere coincidence.  No Zoom trip will be offered without our seal of approval.

 

Gay Marriage Around the World

Each time a country legalizes same-gender marriage, I get many emails asking me for the countries in which it is recognized.  So, on the heals of Scotland's exciting announcement...
  
Countries where same-gender marriage is legal:
Scotland (2014)
England (2013)
Wales (2013)
France (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
Uruguay (2013)
Denmark (2012)
Argentina (2010)
Portugal (2010)
Iceland (2010)
Sweden (2009)
Norway (2009)
South Africa (2006)
Spain (2005)
Canada (2005)
Belgium (2003)
The Netherlands (2000)

Zoom Highlights from 2014

It was a busy year for me and the Zoom team. I traveled a total of 161,014 miles, the equivalent of over 6 times around the world, on 69 flights and a mega yacht  to 31 countries.  
 
In addition to the scheduled tours we offered all year, 2013 had a few highlights that made it particularly special.
 
A couple on Zoom Peru got engaged on Machu Picchu (read about them in our Featured Travelers section).  
 
We celebrated many birthday celebrations, honeymoons and long term relationships in exotic locations around the world on Zoom Southern Africa and our Zoom cruise.  And for the first time, broke the Zoom record for longest lunch (6 hours) of eating, laughing and imbibing on Zoom Argentina.
  
Zoom's Marie-Noelle Marechal was invited to attend a travel convention in China to get new ideas for upcoming Zoom China tours.
  
I received a very exclusive invitation to attend the International Luxury Travel Market Americas in Mexico, where I met one-to-one with the best travel luxury hotels and suppliers and industry leaders from around the world with whom we will partner to continue developing the bespoke experiences you have come to expect from Zoom Vacations.  I then continued my research to Mexico City and the West Coast of Mexico on a most luxurious Four Season educational trip where they pulled all the stops.  They know that our clients only want the best, so they gave me a big taste of it.
  
Zoom's Bryan Herb and I researched the Orient Express Luxury train, the Royal Scotsman, through Scotland, and made great connections with London hoteliers for future trips. 
 
Bryan attended the largest tourism convention in Africa as the guest of the South African government, and continued on to Botswana and South Africa to research upcoming group and private tours in some of the world's top lodges.
  
Zoom Vacations acquired its adorable new mascot, Ms. Buddha-Licious, a rescue puppy who reminds us every day what it means to give and accept unconditional love.
  
Bryan led a lively educational panel discussion on travel to Asia at the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Convention in Chicago with guests from all over the world attending.
  
Team Zoom raised over $7,000 for the American Cancer Society, by participating in the Chicago Marathon.

 

Upgrade Secrets

I'm a bit of a flight/mileage/upgrade geek.  So, guests going on Zoom trips call me all the time to figure out the best way to get to a Zoom destination the cheapest and most comfortable way possible.  As many of you know, not all business class is created equal and not all business class costs the same.  So, it makes sense to do a little research to make sure the plane you are booked on meets your expectations.  On routes like Peru, for instance, some airlines fly with flat beds while others offer a modest recline in Business Class, typically for about the same price, since these routes are price competitive.

In terms of price, how can one fly First or Business Class for the price of coach? Easy!  Combine a paid ticket and miles to confirm a business class seat.  For instance, a $1000 plus 50,000 miles and a $700 co-pay equal a $4,000 business class ticket.  Better yet, look for discounted business class tickets and upgrade to first class.  I once flew to China in first class for all of $3,000 after I paid for a ticket and used upgrades.  However, often times, it makes more sense to buy a discounted business class ticket than to use miles and co pay to upgrade.  Recently, for instance, a business class ticket to Peru was going for as little as $1200.  Buying a ticket and using miles with a co-pay to upgrade would have cost more.  

For some destinations, flying Coach verses Business or First may not matter that much, but especially if you are flying from the States or Canada to Australia, it just might matter a lot!

On Tour in Buenos Aires

I am writing this from my hotel room in Buenos Aires, full of thoughts about how this city has changed since we offered our first tour here nine years ago. 

It has certainly become more gay friendly and accepting, both in the mentality of the locals and as evidenced by anti-discrimination laws that have been enacted.  

The gay scene in Buenos Aires is better than ever, and you can go out every night of the week and find something happening.  

Also the exchange rate has become very favorable for foreigners.  Currently there is a double economy.  The official exchange rate of 6 Argentinian Pesos to the US Dollar that you get at banks and ATMs, and the unofficial exchange rate of 10 Argentinian Pesos to the US Dollar that you can get at unofficial exchange 
houses.   So, your spending money while in the country will go further if you pay with cash. 

A Different World from when we were Younger

I always get a kick out of the sentence, "why would you want to go there", as there are few places on Earth I wouldn't want to see for myself.

Arguably, almost every country has enough sites of interest and things to do to make a vacation.  Granted, of course I understand avoiding a country embroiled in a natural disaster or human-made conflict, or countries that are antigay. However, I have noticed that some people hold ill-perceived ideas about some places, originating from the past.

For instance, myself and a lot of my peers grew up during the Beirut War, and a lot of us can't get past that. It's a shame, because Beirut is often called the Paris of the Middle East, and visitors to the city now can see that it is gaining back its former glory.  Plus, there is so much to see and do outside of Beirut, throughout Lebanon, such as ancient ruins and natural wonders.

The other place about which many people have a misperceived idea is Vietnam. Before going, you may link Vietnam with war.  After a vacation to this stunning country, you'll instead associate Vietnam with impeccable cuisine, natural beauty, gorgeous hotels, and a fascinating, beautiful culture. 

The mystery behind Brazil's "super berry"

If you have been to Brazil, you have likely seen people walking around, eating a dark purple thick "drink" with spoons out of cups.  Or maybe you have tried it yourself. Whatever the case, acai has become very famous in the past few years.

The acai berry is an inch-long reddish, purple fruit, which grows on the acai palm tree, native to Central and South America. 

When you buy it as a drink, it generally comes frozen in packets and is then mixed with sugar and/or other fruit, before handed over to you.

While it has been touted for having better antioxidant properties than any other fruit and for possibly aiding in such things as weight loss, studies are ongoing, so the jury is still out.  One thing is certain, it is one of the few things for which I get hunger pains when back in the States.  I absolutely love it.