Cuba Libre: Cuba Beyond the Beach

With deliberate care, Ramon Guilarte places a half-empty bottle of Paticruzado rum on our table,alongside a battered tin coffee pot and some cups made from old soup cans. He sits down, lights a cigar, smiles through a billowing wreath of smoke and proudly proclaims: “Rum, coffee and cigars are the best things produced in Cuba and you have to enjoy them together!”

Guilarte is our host at La Fondita de Compay Ramon, a private restaurant he runs with his family in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city after Havana. Privately operated restaurants like his, known as paladares, cater to tourists and locals alike—and they’re popping up all over the country.

In a country where virtually every business is state-owned and salaries are low, the opportunity to cash in on the tourism boom is a big deal for many families. The restaurants are also great places for visitors to interact with ordinary Cubans.

Guilarte grew up on a farm in the neighbouring Sierra Maestra Mountains, and artifacts from his youth adorn the walls of his eatery. While he leaves the cooking to his wife Mayra and daughter Viviana, Guilarte serves us a buffet of traditional Cuban fare: pork, chicken, fish, rice, beans and plantain. Everyone’s favourite dish is picadillo—ground beef with green peppers, onion and tomato sauce.

After the meal, Viviana describes the satisfaction of preparing food for guests. Her father echoes the sentiment. “The greatest pleasure for me is to see visitors enjoying our food,” Guilarte says, “I really want them to feel like they are in my home; to see them come in as tourists, but leave as members of our family.”

That dinner in Santiago is just one of many highlights of an eight-day road trip that takes us more than 750 kilometres along highways and back roads, through beautiful colonial cities and dusty farm towns. The journey brings us face-to-face with regular Cubans leading ordinary lives, far from the postcard-perfect beaches for which the country is justifiably famous.

Read the rest of the story in CAA Manitoba magazine at

A visit to Detroit has to include music and motor cars

We had only one day to visit Detroit, so we went to see what it is most famous for – music and motor cars.

When I went there to see a Red Wings hockey game with my family, we had several hours to kill before puck drop so we spent our time visiting two museums that were reminders of Detroit’s past greatness. The first was the Ford Piquette Plant where Henry Ford dreamed up the Model T and the other was the Motown Museum, where countless hit songs were created to become the soundtrack of a generation.

Motor-car manufacturing is what garnered Detroit its nickname of Motor City which evolved into the hipper-sounding Motown. Automobile innovator Henry Ford is the man most responsible for that reputation thanks to the success of his Ford Motor Company. There is actually a Henry Ford Museum in Detroit dedicated to the man’s work that includes a tour of a modern Ford factory. That’s not where we went. Instead, we toured the smaller, but equally fascinating, Ford Piquette Plant, the place where Ford first started making Model T’s before he invented the assembly line.

The plant is an unassuming building in a former industrial neighbourood of Detroit known as Milwaukee Junction. Two major railway lines converge there, which made it attractive to Ford and dozens of other competing manufacturers, including Cadillac and Packard, who wanted to ship cars quickly across the country.

Today, many of those industrial buildings are abandoned, their windows smashed and their walls covered with graffiti. Many lots are overgrown with trees and weeds making the area around the Piquette plant look like something out of a war zone, but despite its outward appearance, Milwaukee Junction is actually shaping up to be one of Detroit’s hottest new residential neighbourhoods.

Neither my wife or my two boys are car aficionados, so I figured our visit would be brief, but we spent an amazing three hours there, completely captivated by the story our award-winning tour guide, Tom Genova, spun as he explained the building’s history, the exhibits and the man behind it all.

Henry Ford was a lot like Steve Jobs of Apple fame, Genova, explained, and the Model T was the iPhone of its time. Ford didn’t invent the automobile and Jobs didn’t invent the mobile phone, but both men were brilliant enough to be able to refine their products and market them in such a way that everyone wanted one and it transformed society.

Inside, the three-storey, Victorian-era building consists of long, open spaces with worn wooden floors, brick walls with peeling paint and massive glass windows that were necessary in a time when electric lighting was still in its infancy. Lining these spaces are rows of old cars, mostly Fords, but also some other examples of cars from the early 1900s. The cars are perfectly restored and polished to a shine, many of them still in running condition. Each one has a story and Genova recounted as many of them as he could during our time there.

The plant was only used by Ford for a few years and cars were built only a few at a time with groups of workers moving from car to car as they put them together. It is where Ford dreamed up his idea of an assembly line to quickly manufacture his cars that he was able to scale up his output and be able to sell affordable cars to everyone, not just the rich.

A little more than a century later, here we were in Detroit, having driven there in our own car thanks to the innovations of Ford and his contemporaries that popularized the automobile.

Hitsville USA in Detroit (Photo by Mark Stachiew)

A five-minute drive away is the Motown Museum, but before our visit, we went for lunch in Midtown. If all you’ve ever seen are photos of some of the city’s abandoned buildings, you’d have the impression that the city resembles some of the worst neighbourhoods of Syria. Midtown is a dynamic neighbourhood filled with creative energy, including the home of one of the city’s recent success stories, Shinola, a manufacturer of locally-made, quality wristwatches.

The other global export for which Detroit was famous was its music, specifically the hits pumped out by the Motown Records label. An amazing 28 songs that were recorded in their humble Detroit studio during the 1960s and 70s went to number one on the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart. It’s no wonder that the studio garnered the nickname Hitsville U.S.A.

A brief sampling of some of the names that recorded in the Motown Records studio include the likes of Diana Ross, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, and Michael Jackson.

Today, Hitsville U.S.A. is part of the Motown Museum. It’s nothing more than an ordinary, two-storey suburban home resembling many others on the street, except this one is painted a brilliant white and blue with a sign proclaiming Hitsville U.S.A. out front. That will change in the near future as the museum is undergoing a $50-million expansion set to open in 2019.

The home, along with an adjacent building and some others in the neighbourhood, became the headquarters for Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s growing musical empire. For many years, he and his family lived upstairs in the main building and it’s today preserved to show visitors what it looked like in the 1960s.

Inside the museum, there are artifacts on display that help tell the story of Motown and the musicians that made it famous. There are gold records, concert posters, photos and many other souvenirs from the record label’s history. Each group is accompanied by a tour guide who helps bring the era to life with anecdotes about Gordy and his artists.

For example, Gordy famously had something he called the sandwich test. When he sat with his employees to decide whether or not they would release a certain song as their next single, he’d ask them if they’d rather spend their money on the record or on a sandwich. If the majority felt it was more worthwhile than a sandwich, then it would go on sale. Otherwise, they’d go back to the studio to see if they could make the song better.

The climax of the tour is a visit to Studio A in the building’s basement. As you pass into the studio, you can look into the control room where the producer and engineers would sit. You can see the worn-out spots on the floor’s linoleum where they would stomp their feet to the rhythm of the music.

There isn’t much to see inside the studio apart from a few cables and some microphones, but after hearing the stories about Motown from our guide and realizing so many great songs were recorded in this very spot, you feel like you are standing on hallowed ground.

We were all given the lyrics to The Temptations song “My Girl” and encouraged to sing together. Everyone’s a bit shy at first, but it doesn’t take long before a group of complete strangers is singing out loud how ‘they’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day’ and everyone is smiling as they do it.



10 road-trip car games with kids that don’t need electronics

Hours locked up with children in a car on a long road trip may sound like one of the seven levels of hell, but there are ways to help the miles fly by that don’t involve electronics.

Sure, you could tranquilize your kids with video games and movies, and there are times you need to, but there are good, old-fashioned car games that have stood the test of time and are still fun to play even in our always-plugged-in society. Here are 10 of them that have been play-tested in my car on many a road trip:

1. License plate phrases
Most state and province license plates on North American roads are a combination of letters and numbers. When a car drives by, each person in the car has to create a funny phrase using the letters on the license plate. For example, if it’s AJG 224, you yell out Archie Juggles Girls. Things can get goofy very quickly.

2. Last letter, first letter
This is a word game where one person starts with a word then the next person has to call out a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word. The first person to break the chain, loses. The words should be part of a theme. In our car, we use place names like cities, countries and states.

3. 20 Questions
This venerable guessing game is always a hit. One person thinks up a person, place or thing and everyone else has to guess what it is in fewer than 20 questions, which can only be of the yes-no variety. My oldest son memorized a long list of the names of the solar system’s minor planets like Make Make and Sedna to make sure we’d never guess.

4. Alphabet game
Find something in the car or in the passing scenery that starts with each letter of the alphabet. The first person starts with A, the next with B and so on until you can’t continue. Unless you’re driving in Quebec, have an X-ray in your pocket or are passing a zoo, letters like Q, X and Z can be a challenge so you may add a rule to skip them.

5. I Spy
I spy with my little eye, something that is orange. What is it? Everyone has to guess quickly, because things disappear in the blink of a little eye when you’re in a car.

6. Collect license plates
Travelling on interstate highways means you see license plates from many states and provinces. Keep a running list to see how many you can spot during your trip. Alaska or the Northwest Territories can be a difficult find and Hawaii is pretty much impossible.

7. Car bingo
This takes a bit of advance preparation. Create bingo sheets with a grid of commonly seen items along the road like a gas station, police car or billboard. The first person to get five down, across or diagonally is the winner. You can create your own grids or find printable templates online.

8. Restaurant race
Each person selects a restaurant chain like McDonald’s or Subways. Every time you see the restaurant by the side of the road, on a billboard or on an exit sign, you collect a point. The person who gets the most points after a set time is the winner. Play it before lunch time and the winner can choose where to stop to eat.

9. Counting Cows
In rural areas, cows are a common sight in passing fields. Kids in the back seat look out their side of the car and count cows that they pass. The goal is to count the most, but if you pass a cemetery, your cows die and you have to start over.

10. Find 100
Pick an object and be the first person to spot 100 of them. Can Dad spot 100 flags before Mom finds 100 billboards? It’s cheating if you pick something too plentiful like blades of grass or car tires.

What games do you play in your car? Let us know in the comments.

Artists, islands and orcas: The top travel destinations in Canada for 2018

Canada 150 festivities may be wrapping up, but 2018 still offers plenty of reasons to vacation within our own borders.

“From sea to sea” takes on new meaning now that the highway to Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories opened in November. It’s the first all-season road in Canada that will allow people to drive all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Prior to that, the only way to get to the northern hamlet was by plane or by ice road in the winter.

Tuktoyaktuk residents are excited to see how the highway transforms the community, but, at the same time, fearful of the disruption it might bring. But while local guides are gearing up for an influx of visitors, the town is still remote enough that it won’t ever become as overtouristed as cities such as Barcelona or Venice.

Read the rest of the story on The Globe & Mail’s website.

Cuba ‘Trump-ets’ new American invasion

It was 56 years ago that American-backed insurgents landed on the beaches of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. That invasion was a failure, but, thanks to the recent warming of relations between Cuba and the U.S., there’s a new American invasion taking place. How this one will turn out is anyone’s guess.

Any day that cruise ships are in town, the length of Calle Obispo, the main artery of Havana’s Old City, bustles with American  tourists. They come to explore the host of shops, bars and restaurants that line this picturesque avenue in a city that was once off limits to Americans.

One of the most popular spots along the street is La Floridita, the bar that invented the rum-fuelled daiquiri cocktail that was a favourite of American writer Ernest Hemingway.

Read the rest of the story on TraveLife Magazine’s website.

Earth, wind and water: 10 offbeat experiences in and around Montreal

There’s nothing better than getting outside during a Montreal summer, but if you have already overdosed on festivals and had your fill of celebrating the city’s 375th birthday, we’ve got 10 unique experiences in and around Montreal that will help you get off your couch to try something new.


Skydive without a parachute

Unless the engines are on fire, most people would rather not jump out of an airplane, yet there are thousands who strap on parachutes to skydive for fun.

If you’re hesitant to make that jump, the closest thing is to take a leap into the skydiving simulator at SkyVenture, located in Laval’s Centropolis complex.

It’s basically a cylindrical room with a giant fan on the floor that blows air upward with enough force to make you float in the air. Each flight lasts 60 seconds, which is the typical length of a parachutist’s free fall, and children as young as four can do it.

An intro package with two flights costs $68. A four-flight package sells for $93.93, and a 10-flight deal is available for $182.65.

2700 Cosmodôme Ave., 514-524-4000,

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A new vocabulary for describing travel emotions

The English language is thought to have more words than any other, but when it comes to vocabulary to convey the complex emotions we experience when we travel, it could definitely use a few more.

To overcome this deficiency, English has borrowed words such as the German wanderlust, and we use French to wish people a bon voyage, but there are plenty of other foreign words that we could incorporate to enrich our language even further. In Japanese, they talk about yoko meshi to describe the stress of speaking a foreign language and German has fernweh to describe a yearning for far-off places.

Even with the help of foreign languages, there are still many feelings when we travel for which there are no unique words.

Here are some that we’ve invented that sum up a few of these common travel experiences with just one word.

Read the rest of the story on The Globe & Mail’s website.

Entering Germany’s dragon den on a robot

FURTH IM WALD, GERMANY – For 500 years, this tiny Bavarian town has staged an annual performance of the story of St. George slaying the dragon that has grown from a humble religious procession into a spectacular event that today features the world’s largest walking robot.

On the day I had come to this medieval German town near the Czech border to witness this event, it was grey and rainy. The show would go on, despite the weather, but the thought of spending two and half hours sitting in the rain didn’t sound like fun.

Prior to the start of the show, I visited some of the sights in the town related to the performance. The Drachenhöhle is a museum that explains the long history of the St. George play known as Drachenstich that is staged here each August. It displays old photos from years gone by, antique costumes and models showing how the gigantic dragon robot was built. It also explains how it began as part of the annual Corpus Christi procession, but broke off from the church in the 19th-century as a secular event.

Read the rest of the story on TraveLife.

Walking in the footsteps of Newfoundland’s Viking settlers

After visiting the only known Viking settlement in North America, we learned to appreciate the struggles that the New World’s first immigrants faced a thousand years ago just to find this place and then to survive in its harsh environment.

We hiked out into the low, scrubby landscape at L’Anse aux Meadows, N.L. to visit the remnants of their seaside settlement, but were underwhelmed to see that it was not much more than a small collection of grassy mounds. That disappointment vanished quickly as our Parks Canada guide brought the story of those mounds to life. He explained how the Vikings smelted iron from the bogs to make nails to repair their ships and struggled to survive at that spot for several years until they eventually abandoned it.

Read the rest of the story on Metro.

Taiwan is the “wheel deal” for cyclists

We had only five kilometres left to cycle that day, but it was hot, our muscles were complaining and the long road ahead of us sloped upwards, reminding us that we’d have to work that much harder to get to our final destination.

As we approached the hill in the Taiwanese countryside, we came to a small community of homes. By the roadside, in the merciful shade of a towering tree, was a small Taoist shrine, one of many similar structures found throughout the country.

The small red building, no bigger than a garden shed, was adorned with colourful sculptures of Chinese gods and monsters. Inside was a golden statue of a deity with offerings left behind by worshippers from nearby farms. We didn’t have anything to offer, but we thirstily drank our remaining water and silently beseeched any gods that were listening to provide us with the energy needed to climb that final hill.

Our prayers were answered because, in what seemed like no time, we powered up the slope ahead and coasted the rest of the way to the hotel where the others in our group were waiting. We were able to luxuriate in the pool where our aching muscles could recover for the next day’s ride.

Read the rest of the story on TraveLife magazine’s website.