Cruising and planning in pencil

The weather is warm and sunny most days but the wind, she blows. We heel at dock even in this protected marina. We have four fenders positioned between Strathspey and the dock and two of them are squished almost flat from the strength of the wind pressing us against the dock. We lower our courtesy flags because their constant thrumming against the stays keep me awake at night and threaten to shred the flags to ribbons.

Piping at Old Port Cove

Piping at Old Port Cove

The extended time at a marina allows us to find and fix any issues in the various systems aboard Strathspey. Our friends and family worry that all we’re doing is repairs down here in the south but it’s a whole other aspect of cruising that only other cruisers can appreciate. When you live on your sailboat 24/7 you become atuned to every little nuance of your boat’s behaviour. You hear a persistent rattle that may turn out to be a faulty set screw on the Bimini frame or it may be a critical piece of your steering that has come loose over time. You feel a slight hesitation when you put the boat in reverse that may be just strong current rushing by or it may be something wrapped around your propeller or, worse, a loose linkage. You smell a hint of diesel fume that may be from a passing boat or it just may be your engine needing attention. Although you most often will regret it, you can sometimes ignore performance that is less than 100% but Blair (being Blair) doesn’t. He’s on holidays and has the time and some of his best memories aboard Strathspey are when we’ve successfully troubleshooted a problem and implemented a fix. Finding problems are the lows of cruising; fixing them successfully are the highs. So, yes, we’re working on Strathspey every day….sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes an hour, sometimes the whole day. But it’s good work, it’s mostly satisfying and, best of all, it keeps Strathspey in top notch condition; one of the prettiest girls at the dance.

We rent a car and drive up to Cocoa Beach one day to view a boat that our Ottawa friends are interested in. It’s a fun day, vicariously spending other people’s money! On the way back to Strathspey, we stop in for lunch at the Riverside Cafe in Vero Beach where I have my favourite blackened fish tacos and Blair has Red Snapper with tropical fruit salsa and yellow rice.

Wind speed at our dock

Wind speed at our dock

Now, there is a good window to sail further south. We prepare to leave Old Port Cove Marina and it seems that we really need to get our ‘house’ in order. When I say ‘house’, I mean house. For the past little while we’ve not been aboard a sailboat because Strathspey has morphed into a floating house and if we head out as is, there will be all manner of flotsam and jetsam strewn about the boat. We put the laptops away, along with all the books and charts littering our chart table and settee. All the shoes and sandals that have made their way out of their hidey holes are stuffed back in. The toiletries that have migrated out of the cupboards and shelves are swept up and stored securely. We disassemble the doghouse (enclosure) and pack away the cockpit cushions and pillows. Blair threads our foresail lines through the genoa cars and back to our winches. I set our binoculars in their usual place on the steering pedestle and reconnect our RAM VHF microphone in the cockpit. Blair fills our water tanks and coils up the hose and our electrical cable and stows them in the starboard locker. I pay our bill at the marina office (ouch!). It’s time, feels good. Strathspey’s a sailing boat again!

Approaching Miami

Approaching Miami

We sail from Lake Worth down to Miami in 15 knots of wind but as we get further along the coast the seas are sloppy and coming on both our bow and our beam. Strathspey has a lurching gait through these waves and I feel queasy all day and have to focus on the horizon at all times. As we make the turn into Miami, Blair pulls in our foresail but the furling line ‘malfunctions’ and so he goes forward to the bow to try to fix the problem. The waves are bigger now because the tide is flowing out of the inlet so it’s a scary thing to have him up on the bow as it plunges up and down through the waves. We end up sailing into the inlet, surfing down waves and rocking from side to side. My queasiness definitely gets worse. Once we are in the shelter of the inlet break wall, we can pull in the foresail but we don’t reach calm water for another 10 minutes as we have a strong current against us. The sun is setting as we motor slowly through Miami harbour and it’s after sunset when we make our way into our anchorage south of the Rickenbacker bridge that leads to Key Biscayne. It was a long day, a challenging day and Strathspey’s decks are sticky and greasy with salt. Blair and I are no better but after nice hot showers and dinner in our cockpit our perspective changes. We’re just that much further south, that much warmer.

Miami skyline viewed from our cockpit

Miami skyline viewed from our cockpit

One afternoon we take a really long dinghy ride north of our anchorage. We have read that there are new anchoring bylaws that stipulate no anchoring north or south of the Venetian Causeway in South beach and we want to check it out. The bylaws are directed at all the derelict boats that litter the south Florida waterways. People actually live in these boats – they live rent-free in the heart of one of the most expensive areas of Miami where real estate prices are beyond most of us. Many of these boats are eyesores to the surrounding property owners, with their decks cluttered with all their worldly possessions; much like the hobos you see pushing their ladened shopping carts around. In some areas these boats have been sitting for years and have shaggy fringes of algae and other growth along their waterlines.

Despite these bylaws, we see lots of boats anchored in and around the causeway. Perhaps the bylaws get enforced periodically and everyone moves and then, over time, they start creeping back in. We do note, however, that Sunset Lake, one of our favourite anchorages in the South Beach area, is empty. This is a lake about the size of the Parliament Hill lawn surrounded by multi-million dollar homes so we think that whenever a boat dares to anchor in Sunset Lake, there are immediate calls to the Governor and lots of hoohaa raised.

It’s downright hot here in Biscayne Bay. We swim for the first time on this trip and the forecast for the next week is for sunny days and 26-27 Celsius. We’re going to explore the keys in Biscayne Bay and further south for the next while and hopefully do lots of swimming and just generally relaxing. Aboard Strathspey this season we’ve been doing lots of that plan in pencil stuff, as my friend Karen calls it. The strong Easterly Tradewinds that conspired to prevent any good weather windows to cross the Gulfstream are keeping us in Florida this season. The Keys are an area that we’ve not ever been to, either by car or boat, so we look forward to exploring here.

Sailing and Ports

Despite how cold the past few mornings are aboard Strathspey here in Vero Beach, once the sun gets to the 10 o’clock position, it’s downright hot in the doghouse. Blair is in shorts and a T-shirt polishing and waxing the cockpit and I’m curled up in the corner, alternately reading and dozing – feels great! Blair just finished reading Springsteen’s autobiography so we are dialled into the E-Street channel on Sirius radio for most of the day. I am reading Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. I pre-ordered it last week for my Kindle but, after all the presidential tweets, it arrives early and is definitely a good read and that’s all I have to say about that. Brooklyn texts us that she’s read a forecast for Ottawa this Saturday of a windchill of -40 C so we’re definitely not going to complain about a few cold nights here in Vero. On top of that our neighbour boat that we share the mooring ball with shows himself only once over the next five days – the privacy and quiet is a bonus.

These herons love our dinghy after dark

These herons love our dinghy after dark

During the cleaning, polishing and waxing exercise we see an ant scurrying along our stern rail with an egg in its mouth. Blair goes into kill mode immediately and sprays ‘ant death’ liberally with the hopes that he can head this possible infestation off at the pass. We’ve had ants aboard Strathspey before and they are persistent visitors. We thought that the worst we’d have after two years ashore would be spiders spinning webs that hang from our rigging and boom and float gently sideways in the wind. But ants are a different thing altogether – think collective mindset, think colonies!

Every day as the sun sets, our Espar heater goes on and the warmest room in the house is the bathroom these days.There is a good-sized vent for our Espar furnace in the bathroom which is a good deal smaller than a shower stall. So it’s toasty in there…but fairly limited in ambiance.

It seems I spoke too soon about our absent neighbour here on the mooring ball. After five days he’s back and he tells us that he has no source of heat other than a little electric heater which he powers by running his generator. Oh and by the way, he says, I plan to run the generator a lot – by a lot he means all day, all night, 24/7. He says he’s okay’d it with the marina and that’s all there is to it. Blair immediately dinghies into the marina office to see about rafting up with a different boat because as he says, ‘There’s no way I’m listening to that racket and smelling that generator exhaust for the rest of our stay here’. While he’s gone, I make a quick call to Harbortown Marina in Ft Pierce to see if they have an available slip for us. This is the same marina who told me before Christmas to call back in February because they were full up to capacity because no-one was moving because of the weather. Well, it seems someone must have moved because they were able to squeeze Strathspey in on their big face dock. We motor the 11 miles south to Ft Pierce and 15 minutes after tying up, our Espar is roaring away and the hot water heater is on…the small pleasures in life while sailing.

It’s so cold that it’s raining iguanas! True story – CBC news reports on January 4th that it’s so cold in Florida that iguanas and lizards are falling from their perches in suburban trees. Serves us right for thinking we could start our 2017/18 cruising in early December.

Injured manatee that swam into the Harbortown Marina and was eventually rescued by Florida Wildlife workers

Injured manatee that swam into the Harbortown Marina and was eventually rescued by Florida Wildlife workers

Blair checks the oil in our sail drive and, as part of the process, he clears some things out of our stern berth. Some of those things are the companionway boards and screens and stuck between two of them is a small brown lizard. This is the third stowaway lizard/iguana we’ve had aboard Strathspey this month and it appears this guy is attached to us, or perhaps it’s the warmth of Strathspey that he’s attached to. Blair sets the lizard out on the dock where the little thing turns around and starts crawling back to Strathspey. Usually these little lizards are lightning fast and dart away sooner than you can dig out a camera but this guy is sluggish. Blair picks him up by the tail and carries him up the dock and sets him free in the marina garden. No falling out of trees for that little iguana.

Saturday, I walk over to the Ft Pierce Farmer’s Market and meet a sailing friend for yet another fish taco lunch. Blair spends the morning sanding our teak companionway boards and our hatch screen frames. He calls me just before noon, very PO’d. He took a bathroom break halfway through his sanding job and someone walked away with his all his sanding and varnishing supplies. He left everything out on the work table and was gone for less than five minutes; we’re just really thankful that the thief didn’t take the companionway boards and screen frames. But $100 later, after a trip to West Marine and Home Depot to replace the supplies (a full can of cetol at $50! plus an assortment of brushes, strainers and thinner), we’re still muttering nasty things about lowlifes who can’t be trusted when our backs are turned. Feels bad and as soon as we get back to Strathspey on the dock, Blair digs out our steel dinghy cable and locks the dinghy to Strathspey. We shouldn’t have to do that I think!

Each morning at 6:30 am I get up to listen to weather guy, Chris Parker, on the SSB radio and each morning it’s just mostly static until the last five minutes of his broadcast. I finally call uncle and pay an extra $100 for a year’s subscription of emailed forecasts. They’re more reliable and, more importantly, available at a more reasonable hour.

On Sunday, the cold spell finally breaks and the night time temps are now in the high teens. The Espar furnace is off and we’re no longer wearing polar fleeces and wool hats but the NE winds are still strong so we decided to stay at Harbortown Marina to finish various boat jobs. One of these jobs is to get a certified Yanmar mechanic to look at our high pressure fuel leak which we thought was fixed in New Smyrna Beach but was not. The mechanic comes aboard and, despite running the engine at high revs for 15 minutes, Blair can’t make the fuel leak show (it’s like the singing frog!). It isn’t a wasted visit though because the mechanic does find and fix another small fuel leak that we hadn’t seen.

Our calendar shows that it has been cold and windy here

Our calendar shows that it has been cold and windy here

I discover that my MACbook Air is dead and, after spending some time with an Apple representative, I decide that it’s time to buy myself a new one. I’ve got an iCloud account and I’ve been backing up my computer on a fairly regular basis but we’re not sure that we can get my desktop and all the setup moved over to my new MAC because we can’t boot up the old one. I envision Blair in a grumpy mood for at least a day while he sorts out this backup. Now here’s where I’m going to sound like a commercial for iCloud…..I start up my new MAC and do the basic setup (language etc). Then I enter my Apple account number and password and it automatically connects me to iCloud and, lo and behold, my old desktop is displayed on my new MAC – all the icons, the mail setup, the reminders, my photos – everything. We were both so glad I’d sprung the $14/month to use iCloud to store all my ‘stuff’. Well worth it in this particular scenario.

Small pipes

Small pipes

Given the amount of time we spend here at Ft Pierce, visiting friends, running errands and taking long walks, it’s not surprising that Strathspey looks like a brand new boat. In between all the fun activities we’ve been cleaning and purging junk inside and polishing and waxing the exterior. We’ve even got some spare time on our hands so I’ve been painting some watercolour wildlife (pure beginner but wonderful for the soul) and Blair has gotten out his bagpipes; both the big pipes (loud) and the small set (easy on the ears) as well as his guitar.

There are many boats sitting here on the main face dock at Harbortown and most of them are waiting for good weather windows. Some, like us, look for a window to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas and others are waiting for a window to sail over the top of the Bahamas to the British Virgin Islands. Friday, we cut the tether to land officially and put our car in storage and I do one last laundry. We use our spinnaker halyard to haul our dinghy up onto our coach roof and Blair fills our tanks with water. He changes the engine oil and sail drive oil and installs a new secondary fuel filter. The winds are blowing strong from the SE, the direction we want to go. But at midnight tonight, a cold front will roll in. The temps will drop from 28 C to 15 C and the winds will move from SE to NW; a good direction to blow us further south.

Our marina lounge has this huge display of knots, some of which we have never seen before

Our marina lounge has this huge display of knots, some of which we have never seen before

We have a wonderful sail from Ft Pierce to the Lake Worth Inlet at West Palm Beach. It’s sunny and there’s 15 knots of wind – it doesn’t get much better than this. At 4:30 pm we drop anchor in the south section of Lake Worth and I back down on it at 1800 RPMs because, although this area has excellent holding, I also know that the wind is going to pickup in the early morning hours. Shortly after we anchor, we see that the fuel is still leaking from one of the high pressure lines; not a full blow leak but bubbling around where the line connects to the high pressure fuel pump. Blair is determined he doesn’t want to go any further with that issue so he disconnects the two lines in front of the one that is leaking and tightens and cleans and wipes and runs the engine and finally thinks he’s fixed the darn thing. Here’s hoping.

Interesting sentiment

Interesting sentiment

The current is strong here because we’re so close to the inlet. Strathspey’s bow points north when we anchor because the tidal current is flowing in from the inlet but six hours later, the bow points south because now the tidal current flows out. The wind is still at 15 knots from the north but halfway through the night it picks up to 20 knots from the north and now, because Strathspey is a light boat, the high wind takes precedence over the current and we are sideways to the current and, more importantly, sideways to the waves that have grown in height due to the wind. I don’t sleep well because the waves slap loudly on Strathspey’s hull. As daylight comes, I see that we haven’t dragged our anchor and I’m relieved but by 10 am, the wind starts blowing a constant 24 knots knots with gusts to 27. We’re sideways to the wind because of the current and finally our anchor starts to give way slightly. It’s not a full-blow drag but it’s still happening and we go into action to haul up the anchor; me at the wheel and Blair at the anchor locker. We decide to motor north about five miles into the northern most section of Lake Worth because we think we’ll have more protection from the wind up there. It’s a tough slog with the current against us as it flows out the inlet plus 24 knots of wind on the nose. We arrive in the north mooring field and Blair is at the wheel going slowly, checking out a good spot for us to anchor. I go below and realize that, even at almost dead slow speed, it’s still really rocky down there and I know I won’t be sleeping well for the next 3-4 days with these predicted high winds. We’re opposite Old Port Cove Marina at this point so I call them to see if they have any vacant slips. Woohoo, they can accommodate us! I don’t even ask the price of the slip it’s so dang windy out here. When we pull into our slip, it’s flat calm and we know this is the right decision. Although I didn’t ask the cost of the slip we think this might be a pretty nice place because Tiger Woods’ big motor yacht, Privacy, is just down the dock from us (Google it). I go to the office and check us in while Blair hoses off the salt we’ve accumulated just in the short trip up Lake Worth to here. It’s here I realize that this is a really nice marina after I tour their high end washrooms and showers and especially when they send me back to Strathspey with a complimentary bottle of California Chardonnay. I could get used to this.

Wonderful fried green tomatoes

Wonderful fried green tomatoes

Blair reports that there is no diesel fuel pooled on the floor of the engine room and that he can wipe the engine with a white glove it’s so clean. He’s fixed the fuel leak. What a relief. What a mechanic. We clean up the disarray down below that resulted from the rocky ride up Lake Worth and have showers in these excellent washroom facilities and finally, around 3:30 pm, we think we better eat lunch so we head over to the onsite restaurant. Blair has the Commodore Burger which requires two hands to eat and I have fish chowder and fried green tomatoes. Both are excellent. Our table looks out onto the north anchorage where we had thought that we might find a quieter anchorage and we can see big waves rolling in toward the restaurant while the boats out there rock hard to and fro. It looks really uncomfortable so we’re doubly glad to be in here. Sailing is wonderful but so is port.

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.

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