Thursday, July 31, 2014


Original text by Keith Bellows, executive summary by darmansjah

New Norm for Lodges?

WHEN I BECAME THE EDITOR of national geographic Traveler magazine 15 years ago, the word ‘ecolodge’ suggested places that were so pared down and dutiful that many travelers were regarding them as the domain of the backpacker-all basic furnishings and uninspired food. Therefore it is astonishing to see how much the lodging industry has changed in little more than a decade. I never much liked the prefix ‘eco’ because innovative hotels and lodges such as those we’re featuring in our special section on page 58 magazine are so much more than green-conscious places in which to stay. They source their food, products, and workers locally. They proudly preserve an authentic sense of place. They celebrate and cherish the local culture. They fight to conserve indigenous landscapes and species. And they donate revenue to support nearby communities. All this while also employing Earth-friendly technologies and practices.

Many of the lodges are small and offer hand-tooled creature comforts-and almost all are one-of-a-kind discoveries. But they can hardly be reduced to the simplistic label of ‘ecolodge’. They are a sign of what will prove increasingly commonplace-a move away from homogenized, big-box lodging experiences. Even major lodging chains now are backing away from a one-size-fits all approach in favor of the bespoke. This shift in the industry is a gift to travelers who have grown weary of lobbies and food and décor that seem divorced from local cultures. I heartily welcome the changes-and look forward to the day when we finally retire the word ‘ecolodge.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014



From its wild south to its revolutionary heart in Havana, Cuba is an island that, in the face of changes to come, is still defined by its defiant spirit

Executive summary by darmansjah

THE bartender on Maguana Beach is mixing mojitos. It’s 11 am, 35C in the shade, and just metres from the pale gold sand and warm cobalt sea, a DJ has booked up some aged speakers to a record deck and is playing reggae-ton rhythms as loud as they will go. Local youths have come from miles around, hitching lifts in each other’s rusting, patched-up Chevrolets. Despite the searing heat, a game of volleyballs is being played with ferocious enthusiasm. One good-looking couple are the stars of the impromptu dance-floor created in the shade of some palm trees, dancing a mix of salsa and street moves. She is gorgeous in a bright-orange bikini. He peels off his vest to reveal, between seat-slicked shoulder blades, an unmistakable tattoo of Che Guevara.

The Beach party, like many things in Cuba, is good-natured and picturesque with a tough  rebellious attitude.  Defiance is Cuba’s national characteristic. It may be a modestly sized island, but for the past half century it has been the only nation in the Americas to consistently resist the influence of the United States. In the process, it has annoyed its superpower neighbor so much that, in 1962, the presence of Soviet missiles here almost triggered a nuclear war. American citizens still commit a felony if they set foot on the island. With good reason, Cuba feels forbidden.

The island’s rebel attitude is much older than its communist revolution. It began as far back as 1511, very near the beach where the party is in full swing, a generation after Xhristopher Columbus first landed. From these jungles, the Taino Indian chieftain Hatuey led a guerrilla resistance against the Spanish conquest. The conquistadors garrisoned themselves at Baracoa, and were thoroughly menaced for three months. Eventually, Hatuey was betrayed, captured and tied to a stake. A friar was given a few minutes to explain Christianity to him, in case he would repent. Hatuey asked if there were Christians like those he saw before him in heaven, and was told that indeed there were. ‘In that case,’ he replied, ‘I’d rather go to hell.’ He was burnt to death.
The indigenous people of the Caribbean were largely wiped out by the conquest, but Hatuey’s brave spirit lives on. At the beach party, the bartender shows off his signet ring, featuring a portrait of the chieftain. ‘Cuba’s first hero,’ he explains proudly. ‘Killed a lot of people who were trying to take his land.’ He grins, revealing an impressive grill of gold teeth. You wouldn’t try to take his land.

This is Guantanamo Province, still one of the least tamed parts of Cuba. In the massive nearby nature reserve of the Parque National Alejandro de Humboldt, the rainforests, pine groves, lagoons, swamps and waterfalls look just as they did in Hatuey’s time, and when runaway slaves hid here 150 years later. Many rare species flourish in the park, including ‘painted’ polymita tree snails, found only in eastern Cuba, whose shells are naturally swirled with psychedelic bright yellow, reds, blues and greys.

The south of Cuba has always been outlaw country. From Baracoa, the road to Santiago de Cuba passes through the sites of several revolutions. After years of Spanish rule, the populations of colonials and slaves rose to fight for independence in the late 19th century. Just out side Baracoa is the spot where the dashingly moustachioed Antonio Maceo, the Great Lion of Cuba, disembarked in 1895. Further round the coast, Jose Marti, the intellectual father of Cuban independence, landed the same year. Both would die heroic deaths in the war that followed. In between their memorials is some of the most stunning countryside anywhere in the Caribbean. For miles, winding along the side of cool, steep, misty mountains thick with lush greenery, nothing but the sound of birdsong can be heard from the ancient forests. The only sign of human life is the road itself. Were it not for that, it would be possible to believe this primeval landscape was a scene from the Jurassic.

Towards the sea, verdant slopes give way to dry, rocky terrain, strewn with cacti and palms. At the coast, a shallow white sandbank and blazing sun turns an entire bay of the clear Caribbean sea a dazzling, pure electric blue. It is almost impossible to believe that such a colour could occur in nature – and yet Guantanamo  remains largely in its natural state. The obvious exception is the controversial US military base on the bay. In the past, the Cuban government has permitted tourists to visit the nearby Mirador de Malones, and peer over the fence at the soldiers. Now, it is off-limits. As the road turns discreetly inland, there is nothing to signify what lies beyond the military checkpoint.

Then again, there is little to signify much else, either. Driving in Cuba is notoriously difficult: the roads are in a terrible state, the cars are worse, and there’s hardly any lighting at night. Most frustratingly of all, there are almost no road signs. Missing turning is a perpetual hazard. Foreigners are often reduced to navigating as Columbus did half a millennium ago, using the sun or the stars.

THE solution is to pick up hitchhikers. A transport shortage has made hitchhiking the standard way for Cubans to travel and hundred of potential passengers line most roads. Popular spots even have a local organizer, deciding who gets priority (usually the elderly, or those with  young children). If you drive past with empty seats, prepare to be yelled at. Not picking up hitchhikers is considered selfish. Providing you choose your passengers wisely, they may be more useful and better company than any map.

A young man on his way to his own wedding is our guide through the rolling fields of sugarcane that line the road to Santiago de Cuba. It seems he is having a serious case of the jitters. Unlike most hitchhikers, he is not in the mood for a chat, and sits clutching his small backpack in nervous silence. At a junction in the road, he asks to get out, and flees-if not into the arms of his intended, then at least, one hopes, into the arms of someone.

Like Baracoa, Santiago dates fro mthe earliest expeditions of the conquistadors. Despite regular assaults from pirates, invaders, revolutionaries, earthquakes, hurricanes and modernity since, it has retained the distinctive feel on an old colonial town. Looking south from the city’s best vantage point – the rooftop bar of the Hotel Casa Granda – Santiago resembles a fantasy of ancient Rome: a collection of red-tiled roofs and rickety wooden terraces, clustered around dimly lit, narrow streets. As the sun sets, the butter-coloured cathedral with its Corinthian pilasters and broken shutters turns dark rose. The air here is so calm in the square below floats up to the roof. Across the harbor, though, storm clouds hunker down over the mountains. A spectacular natural light show illuminates the dusk, flashes of pink lightning glimmering over distant peaks.

SANTIAGO was the birthplace of the most recent revolution. On 26 July 1953, the then beardless young lawyer Fidel Castro and his brother Raul led around 120 revolutionaries in an attack on the Moncada Barracks, near the historical centre of town. The coup failed, and Fidel and Raul were imprisoned. The bullet holes now visible on the barracks are fake. The real ones were even more dramatic, but they were plastered over by the old regime. Five and half years later, Fidel led a successful revolution, and the damage was painstakingly recreated.

We have arrived on the first day of the Fiesta del Fuego,  a week-long carnival of music, dancing and home-brewed rum. The streets are thronged with spectators. The first few parading bands celebrate Santeria, the folk Cuban religion that mixes elements of Catholicism with West African beliefs dating back to the slave trade. Male dancers, stripped to the waist, wear beads and bang drums, fat cigars dangling from their lips. Female dancers twirl in elaborate, colourful lace dresses with voluminous skirts. Offerings of cockerel feathers are burnt below effigies of saints and spirits.

The next wave of bands are dressed as the rebels of Cuban and Haitian history. One imposing gentleman, in frock coat, breeches, white wig and a bicorne (two cornered) hat, plays Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian ex-slave who challenged Napoleon in the 1790s in a massive uprising that demolished slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. With him is another dressed as a peasant soldier, toting a fearsome machete. To squeals of horror and delight from nearby  children, he mimes slicing out his own tounge, while Toussaint sweeps a courteous bow to the ladies. The drums beat louder to compete with the whooping crowd. The man with the machete is replaced by a less bloodthirsty spectacle: a troupe of wide eyed kindergarteners in patriotic colurs, dancing salsa in bashful couples. When the parades finish, the real parties begin. They will go on all night. Cubans, it seems, stand firm against imperialism, capitalism – and bedtime.

The long highway that leads from Santiago to Havana traces the route of both the 19th-and 20th century revolutions. Nearly 621 miles of flat plantations are enlivened only by the occasional motivational billboard. There is no advertising: instead, murals remind the public of the hardships created by the American trade embargo, ore exhort them to live like Che Guevara. The drive take two days, the flight is only two hours – but internal Cuban flights are not for the fainthearted. Enthusiasts may be familiar with the Cuban cliché of vintage American cars, imaginatively repaired many times over, just about holding together. It is more alarming to see the same treatment applied must serve the in-flight coffee in the mist, owing to the cloud pouring through ill-fitting windows. Still, on a good day, the view of the Sierra Maestra mountains is an excellent distraction from any unusual clunking noises coming from the propeller.

All Cuban revolutions aim for the capital, Havana. Most tourists do, too, and swiftly discover that they either love it or hate it. Havana is a dirty, noisy, sprawling maze full of hustlers. It’s also a city of immense charm and heartbreaking beauty, with a vibrant cultural scene and double dose of Cuban audacity. More than many cities, it wears its history upfront in time: cluttered Habana Vieja and Centro are baroque colonial, while stately Miramar and Vedado have an airy, art deco feel. Havana went up in distinct stages, whenever the sugar price boomed, and tumbled down all at once. When Fidel made Cuba communist, the rich fled. The former mansions of plutocrats were given over the hospitals, schools or housing for poor families. The effects of the revolution are evident in Cuba’s impressive health and literacy statistics. But when Fidel’s backing from the Soviet Union declined, Havana’s architecture fell into disrepair.

RESTORATION has begun in Habana Vieja, the oldest part of town, and that is where most of the city’s visitors congregate. The cleaned-up squares and cobbled streets are lovely, their colourful rococo terraces immaculate in the bright Caribbean sun. but Havana’s real magic is in the elegance of its decay. In the less visited back streets, creepers wind around rustling iron balconies. Flaking paintwork reveals 19th-century shop signs under the modern murals of revolutionary heroes.

A stroll along the route of the seaside Malecon, from bustling Habana Vieja to laid-back Vedado, proves this is no ghost town. Roller skating children play baseball in the street. Old folk set the world to rights in pavement cafes, waving cigars to emphasise their points. At the end of the Malecon is the former Hilton Hotel. When Fidel and Che took this city for the revolution in January 1959, they claimed its Continental Suite as their headquarters, later renaming the hotel Habana Libre. Its ritzy restaurant, just above the old revolutionary headquarters on the 25th floor, has a vulture’s eye-view of the whole city. Two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Fidel escaped one of the CIA’s many alleged attempts to assassinate him on this very spot. Having tried and failed to get the Cuban leader with an exploding cigar and a poisoned scuba suit, the spooks primed a waiter to drop a cyanide capsule into this milkshake. But the waiter left the capsule in a refrigerator, where it got frozen to a shelf and broke. Fidel, and the revolution, lived on.

Cyanide is one of the few flavours that is not on sale at Coppelia, the iconic state ice-creams parlour just across the road. It looks like a flying saucer crashed into a park from a 1950s B-movie. The Roman satirist Juvenal opined that all people really wanted from their politicians was ‘bread and circuses’, and the present Cuban regime appears to have taken this to heart. State kiosks sell filled bread rolls for just one national peso (4p).  Coppelia is the circus, where a few pesos buy a bowl of pistachio, caramel, strawberry, hazelnut or chocolate ice cream. Whole families turn out in their best. Giggling children spin on diner-style stools. Their grandmothers retreat to stained-glass booths to gossip, slurping more ice cream than you would believe any human being could reasonably consume, and packing more into boxes to take home.

The appeal is easy to understand, for eating well is one of the island’s challenges. Cuban cuisine is delicious in Miami or New York. In Cuba, it is awful: a joyless, unchanging menu of fried chicken or pork with rice and beans. Weeks can go by without sight of a vegetables, unless you count the potato chip. Anywhere else in the world, spending more money at a good restaurant would get you better food. But Cuba is not like anywhere else in the world. What you need is not money, but courage.

The good food is hidden in paladars – tiny, private restaurants. Paladar culture began when savvy locals opened their kitchens to the foreigners who roamed the streets, desperate for a hit of broccoli. They were illegal at first, but that  didn’t stop anyone. Now, they’re more or less allowed, though many operate in a grey area. La Guardia, the most famous of all, is on a rough side-street in Centro, one of Havana’s sketchiest negihbourhoods. Some tourists are too scared to get out of the taxi, and most prefer not to walk. Past a burly doorman is a collapsing marble staircase, with one of Fidel’s speeches painted on the wall. Up two storeys, behind a locked door, is the finest food on the island.

In true Cuban style, getting to La Guarida is enchanting, thrilling and formidable. Those who have made the journey include crowned heads of Europe, and Hollywood stars, and the walls are thick with photos of well-fed A-listers. It’s hard not to fall in love with the place. Delicate slices of snapper carpaccio are accompanied by chilled South American white wine. Robust rabbit lasgne arrives on a bed of fresh spinach. The meal must be finished with Havana Club rum, and a Cohiba cigar-Fidel’s favourite-featuring a portrait of the rebel chieftain Hatuey on the box.

Paladars are supposed to be small, basic, family-run operations, and our host is reluctant to explain how La Guarida gets away with breaking so many rules. ‘I would have to write a book,’ he replies. ‘And most of it would be illegal.’ The beaming smile and wink with which he admits this sums up that roguish spirit that suffuses the whole of this fierce, romantic island. Cuba may change, but its people will always be rebels at heart.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Crossover Artist

Executive summary by darmansjah

ITALIAN TENOR Andrea Bocelli lives and travels the way he sings-with deep passion and introspection. Blind since childhood, the onetime piano-bar singer from Tuscany gracefully maneuvers across cultural boundaries and musical styles as a star of both opera halls and pop charts. History’s highest-earning classical solo artist (with some 80 million album sold), Bocelli continues to share his love for the world’s people on his latest album, Passione, featuring six languages and duet partners ranging from Jennifer Lopez to the late Edith Piaf.

What are your favorite sound of the world? My life is made ouof sound. I live in the Tuscan countryside, so my day starts  with the sounds of farms, of chickens and horses and other animals. Those sounds are most  dear to me. When I go to a city such as New York, all the noise mutes out nature. But the music of silence always follows me, and in silence I can concentrate and develop ideas.

What is the Theater of Silence? An amphiteater I created in Laiatico, Italy, in the countryside that I love. Most of the year the sounds of nature reign, but on one day a year in July, thousands of people from all over the world come for a concert. It’s beautiful how on that one day the silence is broken by the sounds of so many languages.

How do you approach foreign places? I’ve come to distinguish and expect certain sounds and smells when I get to a place. I know what kind of smell will greet me in Egypt; I know what smell will welcome me in the United States. When I go to a warm country, as soon as they open the door of the airplane, different smells get in my nose-of cinnamon and other spices.

Any travel regrets? I’m like an athlete-I need to be in pristine condition to perform, so it can be frustrating that I can’t allow myself to experience all there is to do in a place. For instance, I’m amazed by Chinese cuisine-in the past, I’ve eaten all kinds of things, such as jellyfish. I would eat anything if I didn’t have to be so careful.

What’s your Tuscan secret? In the areas of La Sterza and Poggioncino, where I was born, there are simple paths along the river where I ride my horse that not many people know about. The beauty of their simplicity is what I love.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Chile, French Polynesia

Executive summary by darmansjah

ISLAND HOPPER from 1772 to 1775, during his second expediton-a fruitless bid to find themythical Terra Australis-Captain James Cook – THE CAPTAIN  from merchant navy apprentice to Royal Navy captain. James Cook (1728-1779) commanded three historic voyages, during which he charted countless coastlines, claimed the eastern coast of Australia for Britain, circled Antarctica, and became the first known European to reach the Hawaiian Islands and over the final hump from Fortuna Bay to the remains of the Stromness whaling station. Polar Explorers: “Shackleton Crossing of South Georgia Island,” 17 days; $18,350 -  cruised Polynesia on the H.M.S. Resolution. He stopped to chart Easter Island, the launching point for this voyages abroad the 114-passenger M.S. Caledonian Sky. The next few ports, in the Pitcairn Islands, recall another Royal Society foray some 15 years later, as the place settled by some of the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty. Meet some of their descendants before calling on the idyllic, if less storied, island of Mangareva and the Tuamotus archipelago for nature walks and snorkeling amid iridescent fish. Wilderness Travel: “ in the Wake of the Bounty: Easter Island to Tahiti aboard the M.S, Caledonian Sky,” 19 days; $11,495