Launched!

After two winters spent in the snow and cold of Ottawa, we are back in Green Cove Springs, Florida getting ready to launch Strathspey. We left Strathspey at Holland Marine which is attached to Reynolds Park Yacht Center – both of which are good hurricane hidey holes as they are far inland down the St Johns River. These marinas use the old piers that were built to service navy warships and train service men; at one time there were almost 20,000 sailors and navy pilots stationed here. After the second world war there were over 600 ships docked at huge piers. Most of this has long since fallen into disrepair. Holland Marine has a few docks for boats and good haul out facilities though.

We waffle over whether Strathspey has fared well in this hot and sunny climate without daily TLC. When we consider that our boat has come through two major hurricanes unscathed (Mathew in 2016 and Irma in 2017), we feel pretty positive. But when we take stock of all the boat bits that need replacing this year due to salt corrosion and sun damage, we’re a little taken aback.

Our 17-year old windlass motor

Our 17-year old windlass motor

Back in Ottawa while planning our pre-launch boat projects, we had a few big items on our ‘fix or replace’ list and number 1 on that list was our 17 year-old anchor windlass. We’d had a lot of trouble with the windlass while in Cuba on our last cruise and Blair has taken it apart more than once to address corroded wires.

The windlass that we use to deploy 150 feet of chain is basically a two-part workhorse – a deck-mounted gypsy that guides the chain out of the water and into our anchor locker and a big motor that hangs unobtrusively below the deck and powers the windlass. After spending all this time in salt water, the motor was so corroded it was beyond fixing. As well, the chain stripper which forces the chain off the gypsy and down into the anchor locker had broken in half.

Shiny windlass

Our brand new windlass motor

Blair spends almost two days installing and wiring our new Lewmar windlass and it is now a thing of beauty on Strathspey’s bow. Alas, the foot pedals that power the windlass to bring the chain up and down have such corroded wires that we order new ones; another expensive item, another half day to install.

After Strathspey is splashed and we move aboard, we discover that all the important bits on our toilet are seized. At this point a functioning toilet is numero uno on our list of must-get-working bits. Strathspey’s toilet is 17 years old and, although Blair could rebuild it for probably the seventh time, he opts for a brand new toilet after scoping out all the other jobs on his ‘must do’ list. The toilet will be delivered on Thursday and I make plans to be away from Strathspey running errands while that particular installation takes place, as I know it will involve leaking hoses, heavy lifting and lots of cursing.

We have 25 gallons of diesel in our fuel tank and we’re concerned that, after sitting in this hot climate for two years, it will gum up our engine so Blair calls a mobile fuel polishing/filtration company to check our system. Best-case scenario is that we just need the fuel polished, a process which removes algae, any condensed water and other impurities. Worst-case scenario is that the fuel is bad and we need to have our diesel emptied and hauled away for expensive but environmentally safe disposal. The mobile unit arrives and after negotiating the money angle, a team of two rolls their mobile unit down the dock to Strathspey. Fuel, the polishing of, the filtration of and just about anything else you want to do to fuel is a finely honed business and it appears we have a team that knows their stuff. After the all-important ‘sniff’ test, they both agree that the fuel is just fine and probably only needs some polishing. That sniff test is for a whiff of sulphur, which would indicate that there is too much algae to try to salvage the fuel but we pass that test so all looks good. They move on to siphoning our 25 gallons of diesel through three filters and a water separator and remove some black ‘yick’ from the bottom of our tank and pronounce us good to go.

On the interior side of things, we purchased a Sirius satellite radio for Strathspey this fall and Blair installed it and we now have access to over a hundred stations. He programmed button #1 for the Beatles channel and #8 for CBC news but we’re also enjoying the NPR station as well. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummet as a strong cold front moves through. At night the temps are down to near freezing but we are toasty inside with our Espar furnace running continuously, listening to good radio and working on all the ‘inside’ jobs (replaced the carbon monoxide alarm and the solar vent in one of our hatches and spliced shackles onto a few halyards). Sunday morning when we get up we see that there is frost on our car windshield! This is temporary though and the forecast is for mid-20’s Celsius by Tuesday. This is a good reason to never book a one-week trip to Florida to get away from the northern cold and snow; nice weather is iffy here at this time of year – it could be warm or it could be cold…luck of the draw.

I spend quite a bit of time schlepping boxes of boat stuff from our storage locker to Strathspey and, after two years away from it all, it’s been fun to open a box to discover what’s inside, much like an early Christmas. We’ve also been culling items from the boat – Blair discovers he has more than 20 T-shirts to stow away and there’s no way they will get stored aboard. I’m no better because upon our arrival here in Florida I bought tank tops and T-shirts, not remembering that I had left an entire summer wardrobe packed away in our storage locker.

I don’t do any major provisioning for Strathspey just yet but I do go grocery shopping for a very small amount of food so we can stop eating out at restaurants. We are reacquainted with US-South-of-the-border portion sizes very quickly and most often we share an entrée but this doesn’t always work given Blair’s predilection for things like meat loaf and liver with onions!

One day we go to the West Marine in Jacksonville to buy assorted boat bits but I have my eye on the Costco there so I drop Blair off and head out to try to find my way over to the Costco. Both the West Marine and the Costco are in the same mall but this is the biggest mall of my life! I actually have to enter the Costco address into our car’s GPS in order to find it.

Mast was only apart because of brand new rigging which is very, very shiny :)

Mast was only apart because of brand new rigging which is very, very shiny 🙂

Today, Blair finishes assembling the furling system on the mast (that’s the unit that whirls our foresail into a tight little roll after every sail). As well, he attaches all the new standing rigging that Holland Marine made for us. It was an all day job but it’s finally done and now we wait for one stupid little $20 part to install before we can lift the mast onto Strathspey and be an actual sailboat.

I get ambitious and make a trip to Lowe’s hardware and buy a screen replacement kit and start changing out all the screens on Strathspey that have started looking sad. It’s a neat little kit and I’ve amazed both of us with these well-stretched screens in both our companionway boards and two overhead hatches. I am my mother’s daughter!

So, it’s going slower than usual but we’re not complaining because there is no snow down here and any day on the water is a good day, yes?

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

We spend nine days holed up at Sunset Lake in the heart of South Beach, Miami. Thirty years ago South Beach was pretty down at heel and then people started thinking that ‘Hey, this is close to the beach and the land prices aren’t too bad’. Once that happened, the land prices started rising. Now, the average price of houses on Sunset Lake runs in the neighbourhood of six million dollars. The house sizes are close to 6,000 square feet, the lawns are manicured and the streets are busy with mostly hired help….that would be aka ‘servants’. We’re not unaware that we’re squatting here in the lap of luxury and we keep our noses clean; we’re quiet (i.e. Blair doesn’t play his bagpipes), we don’t hang towels on our lifelines to dry and we really try to refrain from spying on all the mega mansions with our binoculars (if that doesn’t work then we just ‘discretely’ spy on them).

Once we leave Sunset Lake though, we make good time north to Green Cove Springs and arrive at Holland Marine docks on a muggy, overcast day. We’re glad to be secure here as there are many days of rain and severe thunderstorms predicted…typical weather for Florida in the spring. Here we remove Strathspey’s sails and transport them to St Augustine for washing and storage. We empty the boat of anything that has a tendency to attract mold and mildew, take all the stuff to a climate controlled storage unit and wash Strathspey both outside and in to remove all traces of our past six-month cruise. We pace ourselves though because the temperatures here in Florida right now hover around the 30-Celsius mark and the extreme humidity ensures many water breaks.

It feels good to give Strathspey the TLC she deserves after this 2700-mile cruise around Cuba. Strathspey performed well as usual, Blair kept all systems maintained in top condition as usual and I navigated us so that Strathspey’s bow always pointed us in a clockwise manner around Cuba. Actually, there was a three-week period where we seemed to be going in circles around Isla de la Juventud but that was all weather-related so not a navigation-related issue. This was a long trip around Cuba but one we’d been planning for a long time. Feels good to have done it. Feels good to be home.

In the land of plenty

We loved Vinales. It was definitely slo-mo there. The evenings were cool and the days were sunny with gentle breezes. The people spoke slower than in Havana where we’d pretty much given up trying to converse in Spanish, other than to say ‘No, gracias’. The tourista hustle, so prevalent in Havana, was non-existent. We wandered the back streets in Vinales at ease, no one trying to sell us something, no one asking us for money or soap. Vinales felt prosperous, although prosperous is probably not the right word for any isolated village in Cuba. But it felt like everyone had what they needed. Our taxi guide told us that tourism and the tobacco industry has been ‘very kind’ to the people of Vinales so perhaps that’s why it was easy for us.

Our spot along the concrete wall in Canal #2, Marina Hemingway

Our spot along the concrete wall in Canal #2, Marina Hemingway

Back at Marina Hemingway, it’s hot, hot, hot. We have friends with a portable outdoor thermometer (Road to the Isles, a boat from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia). Don delights in telling us that it is 95 degrees Fahrenheit …..in the shade!!! We shower twice a day in this heat and have all Strathspey’s sunshades deployed and all her fans going full blast. Brooklyn, up in Ottawa, tells us that there has been yet another snow storm so we don’t complain. But we are keen to grab the next weather window to cross back to the USA.

Once again, I’ve turned into that woman who calls weather guy, Chris Parker, constantly for a good weather window; my apologies to all the other subscribers who groan when I get acknowledged first in Chris’ weather broadcast order. Havana to Miami is probably a 30-hour trip for us, less if we get a good boost from the north-flowing Gulf Stream. A bonus for us is that Gerhardt and Rita on Amphora are here with us in Marina Hemingway so we take turns calling Chris Parker. Amphora is a Swiss-flagged Sun Odyssey who is also heading to Miami.

Friday the 13th is Blair’s birthday so once again he gets to celebrate one of his birthdays in Cuba (the last one was two years ago in Veradero). March 13 is also the evening that the Canadian embassy here in Havana celebrates Terry Fox Day. Friday night there’s a BBQ at the embassy to raise money so we taxi over with a big group of sailors from Marina Hemingway. The embassy is actually serving big Canadian-style hamburgers with French fries plus hotdogs. Blair tells me, ‘It’s my birthday and I’m playing my pipes at the Canadian embassy in Cuba tonight!’. Okay….so the bagpipes come along with us and, when we arrive, everyone has to line up and sign in. But…when they ask Blair what’s in the bag, he tells them they are bagpipes. The guards say, ‘Oh, you’re a musician, come on in and they escort him around the lineup, no worries about signing in.

The embassy is a pretty nice venue with tables set up around a big swimming pool and two or three BBQ’s going as well as a bar. Blair gets introduced to the guests and, just before dusk, he plays a three-part medley (a March, a Strathspey and a slow Air). The audience is divided; the North American/European contingent is ecstatic and cheering, the Cuban contingent is confused…what the heck is that instrument? Blair is pumped – he’s played his bagpipes for the Canadian embassy in Cuba….On his birthday no less.

Saturday night is Pi night. Brooklyn tells us that this is a big deal in North America and everyone is baking pies. Here at Marina Hemingway, there is a boat called Pi that has arrived from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Aboard is Jan, a wonderful singer/guitarist, and she’s decided she is going to have a Pi party aboard the boat. She walks up and down the dock inviting everyone to swing by around 8 pm but at 7 pm, the skies open. It is torrential rain and we think the party must be cancelled as Pi has no cockpit to speak of and the party was intended to be on the dock beside the boat. There is a Russian, Denis, two boats east of us on a 60-foot Trumpy motor yacht with a covered back deck big enough for a dining table of sorts and a few sofas and many deck chairs so the party is moved down there. It was a great night of music with Blair and Jan playing.

Monday morning we get good news; there’s a good weather window opening up later this week. I download the grib wind files from passageweather.com and it looks like Wednesday or Thursday may be our lucky day. The stars align on Thursday and this is a good thing as we have been in Cuba almost three months; if we stay until Friday, we must renew our visa, which will entail a lengthy visit to a visa office in Havana plus $50. We leave the Customs dock at 8:30 am, motor out through the reef cut between the red and green buoys and turn Strathspey’s bow northeast toward Florida. Our first leg of the trip will be a long one, 128 miles, and will position us off Key Largo where we then start simply following the Florida Keys coastline for another 100 miles up to Miami.

We are 30 miles into the trip and about 55 miles due south of Key West (basically in the proverbial ‘middle of nowhere’) when a US Coast Guard plane appears overhead and circles us. We wave and continue on without any attempt on their part to contact us. The Coast Guard maintains a close watch on the Florida Straits waters between Key West and Havana. They deploy planes as well as high speed boats to not only prevent Cubans illegally entering the USA but to also nab any Americans trying to sneak a quick trip into Cuba and back.

Strathspey's new figurehead

Strathspey’s new figurehead

The sea is calm and the winds are relatively light all day. Around dusk a young seabird circles Strathspey and tries to land. We’re almost 22 miles from any land and this bird is obviously tired. He’s also pretty persistent. He lands on our mast spreader but immediately slips off; he’s got flat duck feet and can’t maintain his balance. He tries to land on Strathspey’s deck but we know that if he stays with us, the deck will be slimed with bird droppings so we shout at him, wave our arms, Blair even gets out our air horn and uses up an entire charge blasting the duck to no avail. This duck ignores us. He keeps circling wide from the bow to the stern, then lines himself up like he’s on a runway and swoops down on Strathspey’s stern. He lands on whatever he’s aimed at and then falls off and flies away again only to repeat the maneuver. This goes on for at least 45 minutes and when we finally give up yelling at him he lands on our pulpit rail and curls his flat little webbed feet around the rail. It can’t be comfortable – we’re sure he’s got cramps in his webs and he keeps losing his balance because of his poor grip and then pulling himself upright. He stays there all night and we think it must be like trying to sleep sitting up straight at the end of a workday riding the bus home. When he flies off the next morning, we see that there’s an awful mess on Strathspey’s bow.

As we head northeast, we reach the middle of the north-flowing Gulf Stream and now we have a nice boost of speed to help push us on. We’re excited and start recalculating our arrival time in Miami because we’re moving so fast. We also start thinking about what our first North American dinner will consist of – we’ve really missed the variety and quality of food that we usually take for granted while in Ottawa. Around midnight, the wind drops to 2 knots and the sea is glassy calm. As we approach Key Largo, we think we are now at the edge of the Gulf Stream because Strathspey is now making only 6.8 knots; normally a good speed but far less than when we were right in the middle of the Stream. Ten miles off Key Largo we make our turn to port to follow the Florida Keys northward and we know we are back in civilization because of all the flashing red lights spaced at regular intervals all the way up the Keys. These buoys mark the edge of the reef that lies off the Keys and it’s comforting to see them marking the way north.

Anchored in Sunset Lake

Anchored in Sunset Lake

Friday morning the sea is still flat, the wind is a light southeasterly, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and it is steamy hot. We motor north and by 4:00 pm we are entering the port of Miami. It’s Friday afternoon and it seems everyone with any kind of motorized boat has taken the afternoon off and they are all either out fishing or simply buzzing around Strathspey making waves. We drop anchor north of the Venetian Causeway in Sunset Lake, South Beach Miami, surrounded by multimillion dollar houses – 30 hours and 228 miles after leaving Havana. It’s so great to be back in the land of plenty. We immediately drop a big pile of money at the nearby Fresh Market buying every manner of fruit and vegetables available. We sleep a sound 10 hours, out cold, and the next morning after fresh strawberries for breakfast, we taxi to the Miami Port Authority and officially check into the US.

Our courtesy flag after three months of 20-knot winds

Our courtesy flag after three months of 20-knot winds

Friends ask what sailing the south coast of Cuba is like. In a word….Windy. We arrived in Puerta Vita on December 20, sailed 1500 miles around the coast to Havana and in the entire three months we might have had 10 days when the wind was under 20 knots. We sailed in 20 knots, 25 knots and once even in 31 knots. Another adjective that comes to mind is Remote. We sailed relatively long distances to get between secure anchorages and we often were the only boat out on the sea for days at a time. Yet, every time we anchored, no matter how remote the area, we’d get a visit from either an outpost Guarda Fronteras official or a fisherman wanting to trade or sell fish and lobster. Another thing I’d tell people about is the fishing – the excellent fishing and lobstering. We ate fresh-caught fish or lobster four or five times a week. We either caught it ourselves or traded for it with rum or soap, once or twice even paying a small amount of cash for it. The south coast of Cuba was an adventure we’re glad we took. It stretched our capacity for self-reliance and increased our confidence when sailing in big winds and high seas. Yet, like most adventures, it wasn’t terribly relaxing. We were on our toes all the time except when we took inland trips. So, now that we’re back in North America, we’re going to spend some time here in South Beach Miami and then cruise north to the Jacksonville area….but slowly. We’ll stop in West Palm Beach, Vero Beach and St Augustine for days at a time, dining out, walking the beaches and catching up with friends along the way. Blair says we are taking a holiday from our winter holiday on the south coast of Cuba but I say to everyone…..Go do it, you won’t regret it!

Road Trip

The weather windows from Havana to Miami have had tight shutters on them since our arrival at Hemingway Marina so we decide to take a road trip to Viñales, 120 miles east of here. We waffle over renting a car but we hear that the road to Viñales is pretty bad so we opt for an air-conditioned bus there for $12 each. Our experience with buses in Havana so far has been pretty positive so we’re optimistic as we stroll up to the pickup area in the resort next door at 8:15 am Thursday morning. We’ve pre-paid for two return tickets to Vinales and we’ve even pre-booked a casa particular that has come highly recommended by the tour agent at the resort.

This is the sort of traffic you should expect on the way to Vinales (view from our bus window)

This is the sort of traffic you should expect on the way to Vinales (view from our bus window)

The bus is scheduled to pick us up at 8:40 but we’re early just to ensure we don’t miss it. Buses come and go, picking up folks heading into Havana for the day or to the beach but there’s no sign of our bus. Around 9 am we start pestering the resort desk but they are no help and finally the tour agent arrives at her desk in the lobby. She calls the head office for us and relays that it’s on its way and we need to wait. At 9:45 we are severely PO’d because the bus is still not here yet the tour agent is still telling us that it is coming and we should still wait. At 10:30 I ask her if we need to get a refund and simply call a taxi to go to Viñales. She tells me there are no refunds and we should still wait. At 10:45 Blair is grinding his teeth and I tell him that he should stay put while I go talk to the tour agent. She dials the head office again and tells me that it is coming that we should still wait but she has no credibility with me and I’m wondering if that bus is already in Vinales as it is only a 2 ½ hour ride and the bus is almost 2 ½ hours late. Eureka! At 10:55 the bus arrives to pick us up and it seems that the bus driver didn’t show that morning – what can I say…this is Cuba and we’re probably lucky that it wasn’t a case of mañana. It’s 31 Celsius outside but the bus is wonderfully cool so we settle into our seats and a few hours later we’re climbing up a series of small mountains and then coasting down the other side into Viñales.

View of Viñales from Los Jazmines

View of Viñales from Los Jazmines

We arrive in the center of town, the bus pulls over and the door opens but it’s not a simple matter to step down. Our path is blocked by at least 10 Cubans at the foot of the stairs flashing 8 x 10 glossies of casa particulars (B&B’s), tours to this and tours to that. I squeeze out first and escape to the relative quiet of a group of tourists waiting for a bus back to Havana. Blair it seems is far more polite than I and he stops to say ‘No gracias’ a few times and that’s pretty much done him in because a stout blonde woman with a big umbrella now has him in hand and she’s definitely not letting him go. I dig out the business card for the casa particular where the tour agent has secure reservations for us and I show it to the blonde. She shakes her head and shows us pictures of her casa but eventually gives up and graciously decides to walk us over to the place we’ve reserved.

We follow her down the main street and then a dogleg down a side street to the right and another to the left but then she stops and says she really wants to show us her place. We have a quick conference between the two of us and agree that if her place is really nice, we’ll ditch the other; after all, the casa we’d reserved was meant to have someone waiting for us at the bus. We reason that our blonde lady is working hard for us and deserves our business. She takes us over to her casa particular and we realize that it’s actually not hers….she’s just an ‘agent’ and for a fee she grabs the tourists off the bus and brings them to the various casas and, in return, they give her a half CUC (that’s 50 cents!) for the favor. She starts to show us through the casa but it seems that there is another tourista couple that has grabbed it already so she shrugs and agrees to take us on to the place where we had the reservation. When we get to that casa particular, we’re foiled once again as it appears that a reservation is not all it is cracked up to be and another couple has already grabbed our room. Our blonde lady is not at all concerned and she leads us to another casa particular that she assures us is ‘really clean’. The daughter of the house lets us in and we peek inside the room (it’s got a double bed plus a single and everything is red….curtains, bedspread, walls and yes it is very clean). I check the bathroom and it has a shower, sink, toilet (with a toilet seat!) and an air conditioning unit on the wall. Toilet seats are usually missing in most of the Cuban bathrooms so we take this as a good sign and agree to take it at $25 a night.

We dump our knapsack in the room and find our way back to the main street, ready to start exploring Viñales. This is the primo tobacco growing area in Cuba. As a bonus for us, it has a special designation where the farmers can only use traditional Cuban farming techniques. That means no pesticides, no tractors….just horse and oxen, manual labour and sun, rain and compost. We hike 4 kilometers up to Los Jazmines for lunch with a good view of the Vinales valley. It’s dotted with hump-backed sort of mountains and fertile fields in between and is so picturesque that we figure it’s good that we have a digital camera rather than using rolls and rolls of film to capture the essence of Viñales.

Arroz negro, a combo rice and black bean dish that is a favourite here in Cuba

Arroz negro, a combo rice and black bean dish that is a favourite here in Cuba

On our hike up to the top of Los Jazmines, men appear out of the woods (literally!!) and hold up big handfuls of fine cigars they’ve rolled. One guy has our attention and Blair calls out ‘Quanto questo?’ (how much). This guy holds up 10 fingers and Blair looks at me quizzically. I shrug and say that maybe he’d rather buy his cigars when we go for our tobacco farm tour the next day. Blair says ‘Gracias no’ and we continue on but the man calls out again and holds up five fingers so Blair hands over five dollars and it’s a done deal. We keep hiking higher looking for a good view but mostly we’re looking for somewhere to eat at this point. We eat lunch at the Buena Vista restaurant for $20 and agree that we won’t need to eat again until the following day. Our waitress sets out chicken and vegetable soup, black bean soup, BBQ’d chicken, arroz negro, stir-fried vegetable rice, salad, squash, fruit plates and cold Crystal beer.

After lunch we walk over to the Hotel Jazmines looking for a driver to take us on a tour of the valley the next day. There is a tour agent in the lobby who speaks excellent English and I tell him we want a driver who speaks good English to take us around. The tour agent says, ‘Oh you want a driver AND a guide?’ ‘Absolutely’, I tell him. He calls over Reiner who has a ’57 Ford in pristine condition and tells us that Reiner doesn’t speak English that well but he ‘communicates’ in English Very well. Hmmmm….we like Reiner’s smile and we really like his car so we agree that he’ll pick us up at our casa particular the next morning at 9 am.

Cueva del Indio

Cueva del Indio

Turns out Reiner is a pretty good guide and has no problem ‘communicating’ with us. He takes us to Cueva del Indio, a limestone-walled cave that takes about 10 minutes to walk through. Most of these rounded mountains (myotes) have caves in them, created by eons of rainwater and run off that wear down the softer bits of the mountain. There’s a trail through this cave system that ends at an underground lake where a motor boat picks us up to take us out to the other side. There are a few others waiting with us for the boat and we’re lucky to be first on. We scramble to the front of the boat and grab our seats and then all the lights are extinguished in the cave system. It is pitch black and I immediately reach out for Blair, calling his name. Our hands connect at the same time that a dozen iPhones are switched on as flashlights so everyone stays pretty calm. Reiner is waiting for us at the end of our boat ride through the caves and we climb back in the old Ford and he drives us deeper into the valley.

At some point in our tour is a stop at a tobacco farm that Reiner knows. The fields are green with tobacco plants in various stages of growth. We walk through an area of fresh-cut plants carefully because the leftover stalks are an inch thick and cut on an angle and are as sharp as a kitchen knife. To fall on one of these stalks would likely result in a pretty deep gash. The leaves from the harvested tobacco stalks are hung on long poles for drying. Our guide tells us that the leaves dry in the sun for two or three days and then are brought indoors for a few months of drying.

Three-year-old tobacco

Three-year-old tobacco

We make our way into the drying shed where our guide offers Blair a freshly rolled cigar. The guide speaks English fairly well and gives us a good overview of how the tobacco is processed once it is dry. The leaves are mixed with the farm’s special ‘marinade’ and packed tightly into bales to ‘steep’ until it’s ready for rolling into cigars. Each tobacco farm in Vinales has their own secret tobacco marinade which can consist of things like honey, oranges, caramel and other ingredients that provide a unique flavour to the cigar. The guide rolled a cigar to demonstrate the basic technique for us and stressed that, at his farm, they always stripped the main vein out of the tobacco leaf because that part has the highest concentration of nicotine. Removing this vein makes for a milder cigar. Apparently the cigar gets stronger and stronger depending on where the leaves are grown on the plant. Leaves from the bottom of the plant are relatively mild but the ones at the very top (the corona) are especially strong. As the guide demonstrates his craft to us, his little brother reaches up to take one of the newly rolled cigars. Our guide gently takes the cigar away from the three-year old and nonchalantly hands him one that was already smoldering in an ashtray. That little guy wanders around the drying shed for a good half hour, all the while puffing on that fat cigar; they start young in Cuba I think.

Public transport in most small Cuban towns is via dump trucks

Public transport in most small Cuban towns is via dump trucks


We stay two nights in Viñales and explore the area, walking mostly, sometimes with a driver. We eat dinners at a great Mediterranean restaurant we find on the main street and decide that we’ve now had the best dinner yet in Cuba. Our landlady at the casa particular is disappointed that we don’t eat dinner at her house but we find that most casas typically serve very bland meals of fried marlin (very dry), copious amounts of white rice and cabbage and tomatoes. We tell her that we would like breakfast both mornings though and she perks up at bit. Her breakfasts turn out a little odd though and one morning we are served hot dogs sliced lengthwise in quarters. She redeems herself just a little by providing huge pitchers of freshly-squeezed juice but we’re really glad we didn’t go for the dinner package here!

More dogs than you'd want to shake a stick at I think

More dogs than you’d want to shake a stick at I think

In Viñales, just like every other Cuban city or village we’ve visited, the dogs run the show. We’ve never seen so many dogs running loose. They lie all over the sidewalks and make drivers stop to let them cross the streets. They trot up and down the side streets in packs and even walk into restaurants and sit at your table begging for food! Blair keeps taking photos of them for some reason…perhaps he will mount a retrospective of Cuban dog shots in some gallery when we return. He keeps asking me why I don’t post any shots so I’ve given in for this post.

The trip is over now, we’re still at Marina Hemingway, still waiting for good weather to duck across the Gulf Stream to Miami, still warm.

Drying tobacco

Drying tobacco