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trinidad cubaLast month we reported that U.S. citizens can once again put Cuba on their bucket list. A number of license renewals have finally been issued to cultural tour operators by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), after an unexplained delay.

This week I caught up with Michael Vanderbeek of the Port Everglades Department, who told me that the port has been speaking to cruise lines for a number of months, with a view to operating day trips from Fort Lauderdale to Havana (about a five-hour journey), so sure are they that the travel ban to this wonderful island will be lifted. Vanderbeek and I spoke about this yesterday, ahead of the election, and judging by last night’s result, they could well be right. Cuba could soon be closer than you think to the U.S.

I’m lucky — as a Brit, I can travel to Cuba whenever I want, and I fulfilled that dream back in 2006. The island had always been on my bucket list, but I’m not sure exactly why: Perhaps it was the romantic image combined with its uniqueness in a largely homogenized world.

I spent two weeks there: a few days in Havana, then to the far west to a tiny village called Maria La Gorda, and then on to Trinidad via Varadero. My trip was in turns maddening, exhilarating, saddening, fascinating, surprising and moving.

Maddening because nothing seemed to work, and you had to change your money into a tourist currency, shop in tourist stores and fill up with tourist-priced petrol; exhilarating when I talked politics and Fidel with locals (who, back then at least, were still “officially” not allowed to talk to tourists); saddening to see the poverty, the appalling food and the crumbling architecture; fascinating to get a glimpse into a culture that has been trapped in time for the best part of 50 years; surprising when I’d stumble upon some hidden gem of a restaurant or a sight; and moving when I gave away soap or pens, or gave someone a lift.

IndependentTraveler.com Readers Share Their Cuba Experiences

I spent much of my time there trying to reconcile a country that has some of the finest doctors in the world and the best education with one that, back then, banned free movement of its citizens (this restriction will lift in January) and where food stamps still exist, food is rationed and the gift of a bar of soap can move people to tears. It’s that all-too-common dilemma for a Western citizen who yearns to find a place in the world that isn’t full of Starbucks and McDonald’s and mobile phones, but at the same time sees a country whose people are yearning for just those things.

What I did pick up in my two weeks there was that things take a long time to change in Cuba. Stuff in the West that we take for granted is hampered by a glacier-slow bureaucratic process, wrapped up in years of inefficiency.

But things do change, and that is happening right now. The danger is if it happens too fast.

Before the revolution, Cuba was a U.S. playground. Should all the barriers come down in one go, it may become that again.

My advice: Go there now, before the changes alter the country forever.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

— written by Adam Coulter

cuba taxiIn August, we reported that Cuba trips could be in jeopardy for U.S. travelers, as many tour operators and cultural institutions that offered educational excursions to the long-verboten nation had not had their licenses renewed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Fortunately, Americans can put Cuba back on their bucket lists, as a number of license renewals have finally been issued over the past few weeks. Organizations including Friendly Planet Travel, Insight Cuba and Grand Circle Foundation are now once again authorized to offer “people to people” trips to the Caribbean nation. These trips, authorized by the Obama administration last year, are required by the government to have a focus on cultural exchange with “meaningful interaction between the U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba,” according to the OFAC’s guidelines.

We asked Peggy M. Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, why it took longer than expected for licenses to be renewed. “We were not given any explanation by OFAC as to the delay,” Goldman told us. “However, there was a change in the rules for granting people-to-people licenses in May of 2012, and that change, coupled with fewer people to work on the many applications, no doubt added to the delay in reviewing the applications.”

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

The rule change was sparked by a speech from Cuban-American Congressman Marco Rubio that questioned whether the trips were “cover-ups for tourism,” reports the Associated Press. After this, the application for a license got significantly longer, incorporating increased scrutiny of the day-to-day itineraries of each proposed trip to Cuba. (Rubio had taken issue with such activities as salsa dancing and visits to the Cuban Ministry of Culture.)

“For Friendly Planet Travel, it meant a lot of extra time in preparing very detailed descriptions of each day on tour, plus other information,” said Goldman. “The sheer scope of the new applications must have been daunting for OFAC to review, and from what I understand, there was less staff than before to cope with the work. However, it appears OFAC has gotten on top of the work, because from what I’ve heard, a number of renewals as well as new licenses have been granted in recent days. We are obviously thrilled that we’ve been renewed for a period of two years.”

Given the high demand these trips have seen over the past year, we’re betting many travelers are thrilled too.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hotel milano terrace san juanWe often talk about travel bucket lists filled with big-budget trips that require a lot of planning. They’re stressful, at times, because so much goes into them and we have such big expectations. There’s a reason these trips often stay on the bucket list for many years; it’s much easier to just escape, spur of the moment. So we keep a few trips in our back pocket. Not mega-bucket-list trips, but cheap and easy trips we could take without much planning and with minimal damage to our savings.

San Juan has been calling me lately. For about $520 total, my husband and I could fly there on AirTran. I’d stay at the Hotel Milano, only 15 minutes from the airport, but in the middle of the old city. The family-owned property has free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, a necessity for me. I can imagine having coffee on the rooftop terrace.

Since this isn’t a bucket list destination for me, I wouldn’t feel any pressure to do anything except wander, eat empanadillas and drink rum. Since it is hurricane season in the Caribbean, I could most likely continue to do at least two of my intended activities should the weather turn foul.

A completely different, yet equally satisfying back-pocket trip, for me, would be Acadia National Park in Maine. I want to challenge myself on the Dorr Mountain trail, a series of granite steps up the mountain, much of it through the forest. (Can you imagine the autumn foliage?)

I’d fortify my hike with popovers on the lawn at Jordon Pond House. I’d stay at the Moseley Cottage Inn, preferably in a room with a working fireplace. Sure, the rate is a bit high for my strict budget, $205 per night, but my husband and I would drive to Maine, saving on airfare.

The qualifications for a back-pocket trip are simple: cheap, quick and no stress. Not much of an itinerary is required. Need inspiration? Check out our travel deals.

We’re all about extensive travel, with plenty of planning and packing. But sometimes we just have to throw a few things in a bag and go. That’s why we need a couple of trips in our back pocket. Which destinations are in yours?

— written by Jodi Thompson

havana cubaAt the beginning of this year, IndependentTraveler.com named Cuba one of its 9 Destinations to Visit in 2012, thanks to the relaxation of travel restrictions for Americans wanting to visit the long-forbidden nation. Under the loosened rules, many tour operators and cultural institutions began offering educational trips to Cuba that any traveler could book (prior access had largely been restricted to Americans visiting family in Cuba or traveling for religious purposes).

But these trips appear to be in peril once again. According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the U.S. Treasury, has been extremely slow to renew licenses for travel organizations who want to offer educational Cuba tours — putting future trips in jeopardy.

InsightCuba.com, for example, has “pending OFAC license renewal” at the top of its list of tour offerings; the Free Press notes that the company has had to cancel its last two months of trips because its license expired in June. Other companies affected include National Geographic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and more.

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

It’s not clear if license renewals are not being promptly issued for political, bureaucratic or other reasons. In a statement provided to the Free Press, the U.S. Treasury had only this to say: “We have issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses. We are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requests to renew existing licenses. We receive numerous such requests which are being handled in turn. It is our goal to respond in a timely matter.”

For now, if you see a company advertising Cuba tours, avoid disappointment by calling to ask when its OFAC license expires and whether the trip is guaranteed to run.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Today, during my usual lunchtime sanity break, I peeled myself from my desk and ventured outside in search of food. The wall of hot air that greeted me was stifling. To the chagrin of several women in the knitting store across the way, I immediately stripped down to my underwear. Okay, not really — but I did seriously consider it as I watched a small child attempting to fry an egg in the parking lot.

The latest heat wave here in the Northeastern U.S. has brought temperatures in the 90’s for the past several weeks, and it’s constantly got me wishing I were anywhere but here — anywhere that’s cooler than here, that is.

Take a peek below for four places and activities that I’ve been dreaming about almost daily of late. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel cooler just looking at them.

Visiting Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

glacier bay national park

Swimming at Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios, Jamaica

dunns river falls jamaica

Skiing in Queenstown, New Zealand

queenstown skiing

Touring the (air-conditioned!) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

metropolitan museum of art new york

Where would you like to cool off right about now?

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

Harbour IslandEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Major winter storms have hit the Midwest, and the darkest day of the year just happens to be Thursday. These tidings are reason enough to drop everything — even that fancy ribbon bow you’re struggling with, which is just going to get ripped off the present anyway — and run as fast as you can to the Caribbean.

Here’s more vindication for a vacation in the sun: the Islands of the Bahamas Tourism Board is offering up to $400 cash back for winter trips to said destination. Save $400 on stays of six nights or longer or save $250 on stays of five nights at select properties in the Bahamas (there’s a long list of eligible hotels on the tourism board’s Web site). To get this deal, you must book an air-inclusive package through the Bahamas Tourism Board.

The Catch: Sorry, spring breakers and summer vacationers. This offer is valid for travel from January 1 through March 14 and April 15 through June 20 — so choice spring break and summer vacation travel dates are not covered in this sale.

The Competition: The Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board is offering discounts for travelers heading to what it calls “the real Bahamas,” the less-traveled Bahamian atolls outside of New Providence and Grand Bahama Island. Receive up to two free plane tickets with purchase of an air-inclusive package to participating local resorts on islands like Andros, Cat Island and Eleuthera. Keep in mind that the Bahamas Tourism Board deal detailed above is also valid for stays at some hotels in Out Islands, so check out both deals before booking your Bahamas trip.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello

caribbean map glassesEvery traveler knows that the Caribbean is home to dozens of island nations, thousands of white sand beaches and a seemingly endless supply of fruity cocktails. But how much do you really know about this popular, sun-drenched destination?

Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

Test your Caribbean smarts with our trivia quiz! Answer the eight questions below and then post your score in the comments.

How did you do? Share your results in the comments! For more quiz fun, check out How Well Do You Know Europe? and our World Capitals Challenge.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

cozumel cabana seaEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Not ready to stow those summer flip-flops for another year? Grab your sandals and book a fall or winter trip to someplace sunny and warm — and save up to $550 in the process. Funjet Vacations is currently offering a special 72-hour sale on air/hotel or hotel-only trips to Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii.

The more you spend on your vacation, the more you save. For example, if your total trip cost is between $1,500 and $2,000, you’ll get a discount of $115. Raise the total to between $2,001 and $3,000, and you’ll save $200. You get the picture. For the maximum discount of $550, you’ll have to spend at least $6,001.

The Catch: This isn’t the type of sale you can mull over for a week or two before booking. Come this Thursday at 6 p.m. CT, it’ll be gone — so make your decision and act quickly.

The Competition: Hyatt is offering up to $500 in resort credit at participating properties in Aruba, Cancun, Maui, Key West and other sunny destinations. Unlike the Funjet discount, which reduces the total cost of your trip, this credit is like free extra cash that you can spend on spa treatments, meals and activities at your resort.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Package Deals.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

orange hill beach innWe have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $175. Jacquelynn F. was the first person to submit the right answer. She has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The rooms pictured in Friday’s post are the private cottages at Orange Hill Beach Inn in Nassau. Rates for these cozy little beachfront cabanas range from $155 to $175 per night, depending on the season. The Inn is located just steps from the ocean and features a pool, a bar and a restaurant. Orange Hill Beach Inn is a popular choice for divers, as it offers an assortment of diving and snorkeling packages. Read more about the Orange Hill Beach Inn in Nassau Essentials.

Check back on Friday for another chance to win.

— written by Caroline Costello

st kitts Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Sail to the Southern Caribbean for just $389 per person, and spend seven nights trying your luck in the onboard casino or indulging in 24-hour pizza as you cruise to tropical ports on Carnival Victory. We crunched a few numbers on our fancy calculator and deduced that the going nightly rate for this cruise is about $56 — an affordable fare that will keep your budget in good health. Want to stare at the sea while you get dressed for your big karaoke debut? Oceanview cabins start at $479 per person, and balcony cabins are priced from $639.

This cruise offers a port-intensive itinerary, sailing roundtrip from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and St. Maarten. There’s just one day at sea, which means you’ll have plenty of chances to hone your sand castle-building skills at a variety of Caribbean beaches.

The Catch: This deal is for a sailing in October — which just so happens to be hurricane season. While it’s statistically unlikely that your particular sailing will be affected by a hurricane, we recommend purchasing travel insurance just in case. The truth is: Getting used to the idea of a hurricane-season sailing is one of the best ways to snag bargain-basement cruise deals.

The Competition: We’ve spotted several fall (hurricane season ahoy!) Caribbean cruise deals floating around, none of them quite as cheap as the Carnival Victory deal. But some of the offers are still noteworthy. We found a seven-night November sailing on MSC Poesia that starts at $549, and a four-night Royal Caribbean Bahamas cruise in September or October from just $229.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Cruise Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello