I have to admit when I first heard of the People to People initiative last month, I thought it was some new Verizon family plan and not an essential loophole that would open the doors for Americans to travel to the one destination in the world the law forbids them to go – Cuba.
But even as the industry continues to educate itself about what is exactly legal when making money off Cuba, several operators and agencies, such as Insight Cuba, Globus and Abercrombie and Kent, have been promoting tours, either approved under the People to People program or a special religious education permit, to Cuba.
And while some companies, such as Ya’lla Tours USA have been crying foul, the plans by these operators to send clients to Cuba haven’t been terminated yet.
Ronen Paldi, President of Ya’lla Tours USA says many of the operators promoting legal travel to Cuba still may not be following the correct protocol when sending Americans to the forbidden island.
In fact, although he claims the timing was pure coincidence, a release his company sent, warning agents about making money to Cuba was quickly followed by an announcement by Abercrombie and Kent that initial offerings to Cuba were being placed on hold.
“I think it was pure coincidence,” Paldi told us during a phone interview recently, “but I think a lot of these companies are perhaps realizing how sensitive this is. This is no joke. If the proper due diligence isn’t done, these companies can get in trouble and agents who book through them can get in trouble too. After all, if you break the law just because someone told you that it was right, it doesn’t mean you didn’t break the law. You will still be held accountable."
Nonetheless, one agency, Insight Cuba, has already begun sending clients there on Wednesday through the People the People program without any negative backlash or consequences.
Any unlicensed agent or tour operator, however, that promotes Cuba travel services, makes travel arrangements, or collects funds for travel to Cuba from Americans is in violation of Federal law and is subject to civil and/or criminal penalties.
A trip there needs to be set up through an operator who’s been approved through either the People to People ecucation program or an operator who's been approved to conduct religious education tours. The People to People initiative requires Americans to take part in various cultural experiences in Cuba, essentially, as the name implies, putting them in direct contact with the people of Cuba with hopes of learning about the way of life in the country.
With help from the Center for Caribbean Religion and Culture, Globus hopes to present travelers a rare opportunity to experience the enduring faith, colorful history and lively culture of this captivating nation with its new itinerary for 2012: Cuba: A Spiritual, Historical and Cultural Journey.
Insight Cuba got the tour operator ball rolling when it announced in late June that it was reauthorized by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to send Americans to Cuba.
Abercrombie & Kent hopes to be offering trips through the People to People program, which was implemented by President Clinton in 1999 and suspended by President Bush in 2004 before President Obama resurrected the program this January.
Now, it's really difficult to formulate an opinion on whether this is fully legal, depending on who you speak to. In fact, some industry representatives say the mere promoting of travel there is against the law. When we spoke to the three operators offering Cuba itineraries, they were all pretty adamant that what they were offering was legal. And I find it hard to believe that these established companies would be counseled by someone who didn't know the laws. However, Abercrombie and Kent put temporary holds on those same offerings.
To be safe, Travel Agent suggests being very patient. Wait for the first few trips there to go down without a blip before you consider rushing into the Cuba market. The commission is the same as any other Caribbean island. It seems as though travel to Cuba could be a reality very soon. But, for now, tread lightly.
On the heels of Hilton Worldwide’s recently released study on the most popular Caribbean, Mexican and Latin American destinations for singles, I thought it would be fit as Travel Agent’s Caribbean editor to chime in with a few picks of my own.
Now, whether or not you feel Hilton’s study is objective or just based on destinations where there is a Hilton present, their picks, in my opinion, are pretty spot on.
They list Buenos Aires, Argentina; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico and San Juan, Puerto Rico all as popular singles destinations. In Argentina, I would also include Bariloche in the Patagonia region simply for the action-adventure opportunities. In Brazil, I would also include Buzios, perhaps the country’s hottest beach destination that has also been described as "the Hamptons of Brazil." In Mexico, Playa del Carmen’s fifth avenue, which is stacked with outdoor restaurants, bars, live music and both high-end and affordable shopping, make it a popular singles destination.
Now let's focus on their Caribbean pick before I sprinkle in some of my own. First off, San Juan - and Puerto Rico in general- is definitely suited for singles travel with some of the best nightclubs, casinos and dining in the region. According to Hilton’s written release on the study, “During the day, the historic city of Old San Juan and surrounding natural wildlife, such as the El Yunque Rainforest, provide fun and adventure perfect for newly found friendships or a day alone.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Now, Port Antonio, Jamaica’s lush, tropical region full of luxury resorts and high end restaurants, is perhaps the only spot in the country that is primarily for couples. The rest of the island's tourism spots, Montego Bay, Negril and Ochos Rios, are all suitable for singles as well as couples and families. I would say Montego Bay would be the best singles spot in Jamaica for its great nightlife and affordable resorts.
St. Lucia is most likely a bit of a surprise since most people consider it a honeymoon and wedding destination. Although the island’s exposure on The Bachelor a few seasons ago cemented its position as one of the most romantic destinations in the Caribbean, its Rodney Bay district is one of the coolest hangout for singles I’ve seen in the Caribbean. In less than a two-block span, you will find at least 10 outdoor restaurants and bars playing music, attracting hundreds of tourists looking to dance the night away,
In the Dominican Republic, Puerto Plata is probably more suitable for singles than couples-friendly Punta Cana, but don’t rule out the Hard Rock Punta Cana for an excellent girls' or guys' getaway. When I was there earlier in the year, I saw the most singles I’ve seen at a resort in the Caribbean in quite some time. This is most likely due to the chill, music scene the property endorses and the monthly concert series its promotes.
In The Bahamas, Paradise Island is excellent for both singles and families whereas the Exumas is where you will find couples. In Paradise Island, singles have Atlantis and other popular casinos to blow some steam off at as well as some great (and very affordable) nightlife spots.
These are just a few picks I came up with, but feel free to chime in with your own picks for best singles destinations in the Caribbean.
With three tour operators making announcements to start sending U.S. clients to the once-forbidden destination of Cuba, it’s safe to say the news agents have been waiting to hear for decades has finally arrived.
You can send your clients to Cuba.
Your clients do not have to be a certain age, do not have to have family in Cuba and do not have to be students.
And the catch isn’t really a catch at all.
A trip there needs to be set up through an operator who’s been approved through either the People to People education program or an operator who's been approve to conduct religious education tours. The People to People initiative requires Americans to take part in various cultural experiences in Cuba, essentially, as the name implies, putting them in direct contact with the people of Cuba with hopes of learning about the way of life in the country.
But one can argue that these are usually activities a client visiting a country for the first time wants to do anyway. Now, you won’t be allowed to just sit on a beach sipping Mojitos for the entire trip, but how many of your clients do you think are going to want to do this anyway? Will they use their opportunity to visit a country they were never able to visit before just to do the same daily activities they could have done in other Caribbean islands for years?
And from reading most of the itineraries from the three operators who have already announced tours to Cuba, the cultural mandates seem to be very loosely interpreted. You won’t have to take classes there or dig ditches for a day. Instead a cultural experience can mean anything from meeting farmers who grow tobacco to driving to dinner in a 1950s classic American car.
With help from the Center for Caribbean Religion and Culture, for the first time, Globus will present travelers a rare opportunity to experience the enduring faith, colorful history and lively culture of this captivating nation with its new itinerary for 2012: Cuba: A Spiritual, Historical and Cultural Journey.
Insight Cuba got the tour operator ball rolling when it announced in late June that it was reauthorized by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to send Americans to Cuba.
Abercrombie & Kent will be offering trips through the People to People program, which was implemented by President Clinton in 1999 and suspended by President Bush in 2004 before President Obama resurrected the program this January.
Kura Hulanda Resorts
While they rejoiced and embraced equality as New York State voted to legalize gay marriage Friday night, I’m sure every member of the travel industry saw the dollar signs as well.
Not that New York City needs the tourism, but perhaps other tourism destinations would ride the monumental decision right to the bank and cash in on what should be expected to be an incredible spike in gay and lesbian honeymoons.
Sure, New York isn’t the first state to legalize gay marriage. But you didn’t hear about many hotel packages promoting the passage of same sex marriage in Iowa. To put it quite simply, New York commands more attention than any other city in the world. Further, from a tourism aspect, New York is perhaps the greatest source of tourism for Caribbean islands looking for that American dollar.
And on the first business day following the decision, Travel Agent already spotted the first package offered by a Caribbean hotel aimed at attracting gays and lesbians who tied the knot in New York.
In honor of the recent announcement that same-sex couples can legally marry in the state of New York, Kura Hulanda Resorts in Curaçao is offering newlyweds who present a valid New York marriage license a free upgrade and dinner for two when booking a four-night stay now until December 22.
“A progressive member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, on an island with a refreshing ‘live and let live’ vibe, the Kura Hulanda Resorts offer guests a heavy dose of culture, fine dining and city-life, all wrapped up in a gay-friendly, high-end village community,” said Jody DeLeon, director of sales and marketing for Kura Hulanda Resorts, said in a written release. “Kura Hulanda is the perfect destination for gay travelers looking to experience the beauty of the Caribbean.”
Rates start at $160 per night at Hotel Kura Hulanda and $140 per night at Lodge Kura Hulanda. To receive the free upgrade and a $200 food and beverage voucher which can be used at Japipur Restaurant and / or Watamula Restaurant, guests must show a valid marriage license and book a minimum four-night stay.
Cotton Tree resort
GRAND CAYMAN, Cayman Islands -- Travel Agent just arrived in Grand Cayman for our property review of the new luxury boutique Cotton Tree resort and, within 10 minutes of my stay, I am already highly impressed with this remote cottage resort located in a quiet part of the city.
I am staying in Almond, one of four cottages located throughout the property, which officially opend just a little more than a year a ago. The room is extremely cozy, tucked away in the back of the resort just five feet from the resort's main swimming pool. The room has a living room, a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, a guest room with twin beds and of course a master bed room with a king-size bed, flat-screen TV and a bathroom with a tub and open-wall shower. The guest room also comes with a bathroom, but it just has a shower and toilet.
Don't be fooled by the classic cottage look as this place is extremely high tech and modern. There are speakers located all throughout the room, including two in the ceiling of the living area, two in the bedroom ceiling and two in the guest room ceiling. The entertainment system located under the living room television includes an iPod docking station and a Nintendo Wii. Note: the iPod docking station is for the older, smaller models.
The property's surroundings are very lush and well maintained with gardens and trees everywhere. There is a beach just 10 feet away but it is only good for sunbathing since the water is full of rocks, making it a little unsafe for swimming. There is also an outdoor area for massages or clients can requests massages in the room.
During a short tour, we learned that the property attracts mostly Americans with the rest of the market dominated by both Canadians and U.K. clients.
This is the perfect place for both younger and older couples looking for a true Caribbean boutique. It is also a great pitch for small families. There are not too many weddings here since it doesn't have the space for large receptions. Weddings of less than 30 people, however, can be arranged.
Joe Pike paddleboards in Jamaica
Sandals Resorts across Jamaica are gearing up for a "March Madness" of their own as employees and guests get set to wet their feet in the world of paddleboarding, a new offering by the all-inclusive giant that is sure to be an instant addiction among water sports junkies.
And Travel Agent was on hand to be the first to try it out.
Royce Hanamaikai and Todd Caranto, co-founders of the California-based Pau Hana Surf Supply, along with Josh Schwartz, president of Watersports Direct International and water sports consultant for Sandals Resorts Inc., hosted yours truly at the Sandals Royal Caribbean Resort and Private Island in Montego Bay, Jamaica last week. The three-man crew attracted a large audience as they passed the craft along to myself as well as water sports directors from the other Jamaica Sandals properties.
“The coolest thing about it is seeing all the people who line up to watch. There is always a big audience,” Caranto says. “People are just curious. They see people basically walking on water and wonder what we are doing.”
I consider myself pretty athletic, but balance and water usually make me look like I’ve had too many Red Stripe beers. Just ask the folks at Cap Juluca in Anguilla how my little water skiing lesson went two years ago. But these surfer dudes made me look like a professional in just five minutes. If only golf worked that way.
And like the water sports instructors from the other Jamaican Sandals Resorts that Hanamaikai. Caranto and Schwartz were training the same day, I was instantly hooked.
|From left, Josh Schwartz, Watersports Direct International and water sports consultant for Sandals Resorts Inc., and Royce Hanamaikai and Todd Caranto, Pau Hana Surf Supply.|
So much so that I took up Hanamaikai and Caranto on their offer to be among the first people to ever paddle board down Jamaica’s famous Martha Brae river. Sure, I may have taken a few nasty spills, but in my roughly 16 or 17 times visiting Jamaica, this will definitely be one of my fondest memories.
“The most satisfying thing is seeing how fast people usually catch on to this,” Schwartz told us. “In five minutes, they are doing something they probably never imagined doing in their whole lives.”
The best way to describe the sport is if kayaking and surfing got drunk, hooked up and conceived a child. The board is vertical as opposed to surfing. The board is extremely sturdy so balance isn’t an issue. You kneel on the board, stand straight up and then use both hands to grip the oar, paddling on either the right or left side, depending on which way the wind is blowing that day.
Schwartz says that he, Hanamaikai and Caranto have been trying to bring the sport to Caribbean resorts for two years until Hanamaikai and Caranto literally began knocking on doors in Jamaica when Sandals bit. Caranto says Sandals evaluated several board manufactures and then chose Pau Hana and the Big EZ Hawaiian board.
|Author Joe Pike take his new-found paddleboarding hobby to the Martha Brae river.|
“We were literally going door to door, just knocking on doors and seeing if there was interest,” Hanamaikai told us. “When we came here, there was instant interest and we knew we had a winner. Everyone here was really welcoming to the idea. I just knew the hotel had a great sense of water sports and what their guests would enjoy it. From there, everything basically just went really smoothly and now we plan on having this great activity at every Sandals resort that wants it.”
The program at Sandals is expected to be launched to Sandals Royal Caribbean guests this week. After that, it will be rolled out at the other Sandals properties in Jamaica. The program will come to Turks and Caicos in about a month and then throughout the rest of Sandals’ Caribbean properties shortly after.
“I really think the Sandals brand of water sports is really different than any other water sports offerings at other resorts,” Schwartz says. “And Sandals is really the first resort to officially brand its water sports. Those ‘Sandals' logos on the boards aren’t stickers. That's the real thing. I don’t think any other resort is branding their water sports the way Sandals is. It’s really exciting to be a part of.”
View at Stonefield Estate Villa Resort & Spa in St. Lucia
ST. LUCIA – During a recent trip to St. Lucia, Travel Agent toured the 17-villa Stonefield Estate Villa Resort & Spa, a former lime and coconut plantation that was transformed into a hotel roughly five years ago.
Only 13 percent of all bookings last year were made through an agent, but the resort just started to market heavily in the U.S., which is why you may not heard of this property until now.
This is one of those “disconnect” luxury resorts where no televisions or landlines can be found in the rooms, although cell phones can be requested upon check in. The resort will be becoming a little more connected in June, however, when all the rooms become equipped with iPod docking stations, according to Ernie George, the property’s general manager.
George told us roughly 80 percent of the guests are Americans while 5-10 percent come from Canada and the rest arrive from the United Kingdom. He says most guests usually stay for seven to nine days, but shorter stays of four or five nights became more common when JetBlue Airways launched nonstop service to the island about a year ago.
The only downside here is the lack of a beach on the property. Stonefield, however, uses the very nearby beach at the Jalouise Plantation and plans to add a path from the resort to Jalouise’s beach sometime in the near future, George said. Other plans for the resort include the construction of 13 more villas within the next two years.
The best room at this resort is the Hillside Majestic Ocean View villa. There is only one of these. We saw the Hillside Ocean View room. This room, although not the top category, was pretty impressive, with views of one of the two Piton mountains right smack in front of the room.
The views from the three-bedroom villa’s outdoor plunge pool and hammock are what makes the room worth booking. There are four of these rooms at the resort and they start at roughly $650 a night. The top category is pretty similar although it has 700 square feet of extra room and a larger pool.
The modest but elegant spa, which opened in 2008, has just two treatment rooms and a salon, but most massages at the resort are done in the rooms or outdoors.
Thirty percent of all food served at the resort’s signature restaurant Mango Tree, is grown on the property. The resort also offers cooking classes once a week, beginning in February, and holds Thursday-night barbecues.
Recommend this resort to affluent honeymooners or couples in general. But for the more budget-conscious client, suggest perhaps a one- or two-night stay here followed by a three-or-four-night stay at a nearby Sandals or another more affordable all-inclusive.
Commission ranges from 15 to 20 percent based on the volume of the booking, said George.
ST. LUCIA – Was Jade Mountain the best hotel I have ever stayed at in the Caribbean? Well, there was an infinity pool in the bedroom of my three-wall room at this ultra-luxury resort in St. Lucia.
This room was just pure heaven. I can see why a guest here once stayed in the room for five consecutive days without stepping foot outside. There is quite simply no reason to leave. And you aren’t exactly inside, either.
Each room has only three walls.Without the fourth wall, you are basically outside while in your room. You can catch plenty of rays just by sitting in the lawn chairs in your living room. The pool begins from your bed, which is netted to protect you from mosquitoes, and extends to the front of your living room with perhaps the best view I’ve ever seen at a Caribbean hotel.
Looking out from the edge of your pool, you can see the pride of St. Lucia: the Pitons, two gigantic, gorgeous green twin mountains.
To your right is more ocean, which looks like a painting when the sun goes down. To make a long story short, I was in my room, in a pool, drinking a cold beer, overlooking a real-life mountain.
This was one of the first luxury properties I had seen in the Caribbean when it first opened roughly four years ago, right around the time I began covering the region. I never got to stay there until now, but the wait was well worth it — even if I only got to stay for one night.
Also, there is a Jacuzzi directly in front of the shower, which has no walls at all.
I stayed in room JA2, known as “Moon,” one of the 29 rooms of this resort, which is owned by Karolin and Nick Troubetzky, who also own the original Anse Chastanet. Anse Chastanet was built in the ‘70’s and Jade Mountain is its sister property, the newer of the two and practically a resort-within-a-resort.
Although situated near the same location, the difference is that Jade Mountain comes with access to the pools and a butler for every room. The lowest category rooms at Jade Mountain, however, only come with a Jacuzzi. Rooms are pretty pricey, ranging from $1,200 to about $2,300 a night.
The only drawback for someone like me was the room's lack of a television. That’s usually not a problem since the typical guests here are not lonely travel writers, but honeymooners, a variety of guest this property has consistently attracted since it was featured on “The Bachelor” last season. In fact, the terrace of Jade Mountain, where private dinners can be arranged, was the site where Jake proposed on the show. Or, so I’ve heard.
Butlers, upon request, can bring wireless devices to your room, so you have Internet service if you feel the desire to connect with the outside world or, in my case, brag to your friends about what an awesome job you have.
You simply can’t go wrong pitching this incredible resort. This is mainly for honeymooners and wedding destination-seekers, but Anse Chastanet is also a place for families to stay.
ST. LUCIA – So, I managed to go four straight days in Las Vegas without playing a single hand of Blackjack, keeping intact my New Year’s resolution to not gamble in a casino. And what happens?
The day I arrive for a four-day press trip to St. Lucia, the island opens its first casino since it was discovered by Columbus.
Now, I could have easily stayed away, but I had to get a first-hand look at something I thought I’d never see on this Caribbean island. The Treasure Bay Casino has 257 slot machines (90 percent of which are penny slots), nine Blackjack tables, one Craps table, one Roulette table, 31 televisions in the bar and three poker tables in a private area. The casino is located in the Bay Walk mall in the heart of Rodney Bay, the area of the island with the most vibrant nightlife.
The temptation to sit down at the brand new, green felt Blackjack table — that hadn't yet seen a single spilled drink or a frustrated gambler's pounding fist — subsided quickly for two reasons: The “How to Play Blackjack" pamphlet to the left of the table, which alerted me to the fact that most of the people I would play with here would not be experts of the game (something that has cost me money in the past), and … the dealer was not yet on duty.
But I must say, the place looked very clean, very professional and, unfortunately for me and the locals of St. Lucia who are inexperienced in table games, very inviting.
The casino also has a handful of $1 minimum Blackjack tables, meaning you can gamble for hours without losing too much dough. I spoke to Jeff Prusinowski, vice president of gaming operations for Treasure Bay Casino and Hotel, about the casino. Prusinowski's company is based in Biloxi, Mississippi, and owns and manages several casinos in the Caribbean, in locations such as The Bahamas, Aruba and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Thirty-six nationals and 10 to 15 ex-pats work at the casino, all of whom went through 10 weeks of training prior to the opening, according to Prusinowski. Locals are allowed to gamble. Locals, as well as tourists, need to become a member of the casino in order to wager. To become a member, all you have to do is present your I.D. and sign a form.
I’ve been hearing about the possibility of St. Lucia opening a casino for some time now, but I honestly never thought the government would allow it. Prusinowski said the plan to open this casino first sprouted in 2004.
“I always say the Ministry of Tourism should be called the Ministry of Experience,” said Sen. Allen Chastanet, minister of tourism and civil aviation in St. Lucia, “because tourism is really about your experiences and adding a casino is just another way we can tailor visitors’ experience of St. Lucia. It’s just one more thing we can give them.”
Riu Palace Paradise Island
Travel Agent's room during a recent, four-night trip to Riu Palace Paradise Island in The Bahamas
NASSAU, The Bahamas – I came back from The Bahamas on Sunday afternoon following a four-night trip to see the newly renovated Riu Palace Paradise Island. And, as sad as the conclusion of one of my best trips of 2010 was, the beginning still brings a smile to my face.
I arrived at my room, #1132, a newly renovated Oceanfront Suite located on the second highest floor of the building. The room was pretty big, offering a king-size bed on one side and a couch and living area on the other, with a rotating flat-screen TV separating the two.
The room wasn’t splashed with your traditional bright Caribbean colors, but rather subtle, deep purples. There’s something about dark purple that screams luxury to me.
Ok, maybe it also had a little something to do with the room-length balcony on the outside. I’ve had balconies before that couldn’t even fit a lawn chair. This one stretched from one side of the room to the next, offering not only full ocean views but also views of the property's swimming pool to the left.
The bathroom was pretty nice too. Since the TV can be rotated, you can position it so you can watch it from the bathroom while you get ready, do your hair or take care of other business.
The bottom line was this was one of the best rooms I’ve seen in the Caribbean this year and well worth the time and money RIU spent in improving it. In fact, this was one of 12 suites that were vamped up as part of a massive refurbishment of the resort. Other upgrades included a new restaurant, Krystal (which offers fusion cuisine), new linens and other decorations in all of the 379 total rooms and top shelf liquor in all the rooms as well and more.
View of the pool from Travel Agent's oceanfront suite at the Riu Palace Paradise Island
First and foremost, book this resort for couples but you’d be missing out on some clients if you ignored pretty much every other demographic including girls or guys getaways and multigenerational travel. In fact, I brought my brother on this trip and we bonded just as much, if not more, than we did when we celebrated his bachelor party in Vegas. But more on the rest of trip at a later time.