Forget the Tour Group – A Few Tips for Traveling to Cuba

We’ve always wanted to visit and learn about Cuba but hated the idea of being shuttled around with a group. United States citizens no longer have to travel on an organized tour to Cuba. A passport and visa (specifying an approved category) will get you there. While the idea of an air-conditioned bus and dinner reservations after a long day held some appeal, we did fine on our own and were thankful for the independence and opportunity to explore off-the-beaten tourist track.

A few trips for traveling sans group:

- Don’t be afraid of the self-regulating US visa process. Most can be bought ($50-$100 per person) in conjunction with a plane ticket–either in advance or at the airport. Understand the categories in relation to the purpose of your trip and keep a detailed itinerary and receipts.

 - Convert money to Euros in the US before traveling and exchange for Cuban CUCs when you arrive. American dollars are subject to a 10% tax. Banks have the best exchange rates. Cuba uses two types of currency. CUPs are for citizens. CUCs are for tourists.

- Plan your trip around where you stay. Book a casa particular online at least a few months in advance. Some hosts will offer taxi service (a huge plus) and recommendations for dining out.

- Bring what you need. It’s difficult to find items for sale such as aspirin or a toothbrush. Pack plenty of supplies and leave behind for the Cuban people.

- Be prepared for the heat. Humidity dominates most of the year. It can be hard to find bottled water in certain neighborhoods so plan accordingly. Take breaks.

- While things are changing, Internet and phone service and be difficult. Plan to be offline. 

- Give yourself plenty of time to wander and connect with locals. The Cuban people are generous and kind.


Desitnation Dining in LA

Freeway and surface-street traffic jams are no LA myth. So if you want to venture across town, you want it to be worth the travel time. From Koreatown to Westlake to Echo Park, here are a few worth-the-time-in-the-car culinary destinations.

Mapo Chicken
This unassuming place packs a crowd for its signature dish, the popular Korean chicken dak galbi. Once you’re seated, oil is heated in the large cast-iron pan at your table. Food is layered in and stir-fried with a wooden spoon (boneless chicken pieces cooked in a savory chilli sauce with sweet potatoes, onions, tube-shaped rice cakes, cabbage and snipped perilla leaves, from the mint family) and served with kimchi. Half the fun is the anticipation–during the cooking time, fragrant steam fills the table. Order a refreshing Hite to ease the spice. Minimum order two servings.
On-the-scene: Groups of friends dominate the space.

Address: 1008 S. St. Andrews Place
Website: mapochicken.com
Good to know: Free valet parking.

Langer’s Deli
“World’s Best Pastrami Sandwich” is quite a boast. While we haven’t had the #19 ourselves, we are onboard with everything served by a dedicated staff at this much-loved Westlake institution. Since 1947 this Jewish deli has been serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner, including all things pastrami, corned beef, as well as matzo ball soup, blintzes and giant egg breakfasts. Rye bread, oversized jars of pickles and knishes available to-go.
On-the-scene: Weekday lunch diners starts early here. Expect the naugahyde booths to fill up by 11:30am.

Address: 704 South Alvarado 
Website: langersdeli.com
Good to know: Curb service available.

Fix Coffee
Fancied up grits. Eggs over easy. Piping hot coffee. Breakfast dominates here at this Echo Park spot. The patio (dog-friendly) is surrounded by one building to order food (wait for your coffee and take your number to your table) and another that’s the kitchen where friendly chefs prepare avocado toast, ciabatta french toast, wraps and burgers and hand deliver their dishes with pride.
On-the-scene: Bustling weekday dining complete with laptops, and “chill” power meetings kept us people watching while eating.
Address: 2100 Echo Park Avenue

Website: fixcoffeeco.com
Good to know: Mainly outdoor seating.


Lilify Artisan Shop and Bright Coffee in Monterey

 

A short walk from Cannery Row (in the up-and-coming area on Lighthouse Avenue) this connected boutique/cafe is as far away from the tourist-wharf vibe as you can get. Lilify opened four years ago and is stocked with letterpress cards, soy candles, rustic ceramics, Milkhaus bags and a well-curated collection of jewelry.  The small outdoor nook is dog-friendly and the perfect place to indulge in a crumbly blueberry scone and a pour over/cold brew served up by one of the friendly Bright Coffee baristas.
On-the-scene: In the midst of construction across the street and whizzing traffic, it felt like an oasis to find this lovely spot.          

Address: 281 Lighthouse Avenue
Websites: lilify.com and brightcoffee.com
Good to know: Check out sister cafe, Cafe Lumiere, in Downtown Monterey.


Woodstock Roundup

Oriole 9
Located in the heart of  the town of Woodstock (a one-hour drive south of Albany), this is the go-to spot for a casual breakfast or lunch. Always bustling and with friendly service, the menu features healthful fare including vegetarian options like French lentil soup, Tempeh TLT, red quinoa salad and curried coconut tofu hash. Carnivores can indulge in the house-made brisket.     
On-the-scene: We stopped in for bowls of soup on a chilly fall afternoon during the Woodstock Film Festival.

Address: 17 Tinker Street
Website: oriole9.com
Good to know: Breakfast served all day.

The Golden Notebook
A hub of the community, this independent bookstore has been selling since 1978. Sponsoring readings and events, including a holiday-time poetry scavenger hunt, the Golden Notebook goes beyond just selling. Doris Lessing would have been proud.
On-the-scene: I’ve been visiting since I was in high school and love that it feels the same, even after the ownership changed.

Address: 29 Tinker Street
Website: goldennotebook.com
Good to know: Perfect for uninterrupted browsing.

Ecosystem
Perched over a small waterfall (pictured above) this boutique offers clothing made from all-natural fibers (designed by the co-owner) and a carefully curated selection of jewelry, home goods and bags.
On-the-scene: I made two trips in one day on my last visit.
Address: 8 Tanery Brook Road

Website: ecosytemshop.com
Good to know: Locations also in Soho and Hudson.





Petaluma Roundup


Vintage Bank Antiques
Housed in a former bank, built circa 1926, this is your if-I-could-only-go-to-one-antique-store-ever spot (pictured above). Extensive art, jewelry and furniture collections, as well as books, knickknacks and rare finds (not to mention the opportunity to shop in a bank vault) make this a must in the downtown area. 
On-the-scene: My sister found large brass candlestick holders so great she was willing to lug them back on the plane.

Address: 101 Petaluma Blvd. N
Good to know: Don’t miss the downstairs.  

Lombardi’s Barbecue & Deli
Serving up all things barbecue (tri-tip, ribs, chicken and more), sandwiches and traditional deli sides, this favorite-to-locals spot is family-owned and features big portions and friendly service. Outdoor seating available.
On-the-scene: This has become our regular lunch spot when in the North Bay.

Address: 3413 Petaluma Blvd. N
Website: lombardisbbq.com
Good to know: Oysters are served weekends only.

Petaluma Pie Company
This tiny shop–a certified Green business–features sweet and savory pies, and showcases ingredients from Strauss and Cowgirl Creamery, as well as produce bought directly from local farmers. Cream pies include butterscotch, coconut cream and banana cream. Look for seasonal fruit selections such as nectarine blackberry, peach blueberry and strawberry rhubarb. Take-and-Bake pies available (think hot chicken pot pie out of the oven).
On-the-scene: We buy our pies early in the day and ask to have them held until closing.
Bay.
Address: 125 Petaluma Blvd.

Website: petalumapiecompany.com
Good to know: Shop early. Pies sell out.




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