Traveling to Cuba

August 8, 2006

Is there any way to travel legally to Cuba? Robert Griffle, Lee's Summit, Mo.

On trips to Cuba run by human rights organization Global Exchange, the only people accepted are full-time professionals with jobs that correlate to specific programs offered--nurses at the health-care conference, teachers at the educators' delegation (415/558-9486, Eight-day trips cost $2,350 and include lodging and two meals a day; airfare to Cuba, by way of Mexico, is extra and can be arranged through Global Exchange. If you don't qualify, or want to see Cuba on your own, you must apply for a special license through the Treasury Department. The chances of being accepted are slim: You basically have to prove that your visiting Cuba is somehow in the best interests of the U.S. If you go to Cuba without a license, the penalties range from a warning letter to as much as $65,000 in fines and the rare criminal prosecution. For more information, visit

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On Life, Liberty, and the Freedom to Travel

Have you heard about the Cubans staying at the Sheraton Maria Isabel in Mexico City? The U.S. government threatened to fine Starwood, Sheraton's parent company, because, as an American entity doing business with Cubans, Starwood was violating the U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Our Cuba policy has long driven me batty. The embargo is misguided and shortsighted, born of special interests and political kowtowing. Yes, Cuba has an appalling human rights record, but so do other countries (China and Myanmar come to mind)--and we certainly don't forbid travel there. And for those of you about to accuse me of being partisan, please hold your horses. I blame every president--every politician--since John F. Kennedy started the de facto travel ban back in 1963. What galls me isn't the economic sanctions so much as something more selfish. I believe that Americans should have the right to travel wherever we want. Subscribers don't always like it when I write something "political," but if anything, I'm arguing against the institutional politicization of travel. On this count, I'm a libertarian: Every individual must be allowed to make his or her own choices about where to travel. There are countries--and states--that I think twice about visiting because I'm not sure I'd feel welcome there. And perhaps I shouldn't spend my tourism dollars supporting agendas I don't agree with. Then again, I'm hopelessly optimistic that I'll be able to enlighten someone simply by interacting with him. Travelers have long been a potent force of positive change. The thing is, it's my decision. At Budget Travel, we write about all destinations regardless of their policies; we leave it to you to decide if the politics matter. Some people prefer not to think about the issues surrounding a place, and hey, that's their prerogative. Back to the Sheraton situation--undiplomacy at its finest--which soon devolved into farce. Sheraton evicted the Cubans, a move the Mexican government called discriminatory. Local officials ordered the hotel shuttered for code violations, but the hotel still quietly let guests in, and then the city reversed its decision. I wonder if the hotel could've simply not charged the Cubans--what a magnanimous gesture that would have been. It would've been even better if Starwood had refused outright to obey the U.S. policy. But I'm not so optimistic as to hope for civil disobedience from corporate executives. It isn't good for the shareholders.

Trip Coach: August 8, 2006

Des Moines, IA: I am a nature and wildlife photographer... What are the best locations for this type of photography in Japan? What are the best months to go? I want to go sometime during the next 15 mos and potentially will spend about 2 or 3 weeks or more if needed. What is the best way to plan the trip? Is Japanese necessary? I am just beginning to study the language. Chris Rowthorn: Hi Everyone, Sorry for the delay. The best destinations for nature photography are the Japan Alps, Yaku-shima and Iriomote-island. The best months for outdoor photography are April and November. In the mountains, the summer months are best. You don't need Japanese ability to travel in Japan. But, learning a few pleasantries helps. Hope this helps! Cheers, Chris _______________________ Los Angeles, CA: I have business meetings in Tokyo in mid-October and I finish on a Thursday evening, with an outgoing evening flight at 1830 Saturday from Narita airport. Could you recommend sightseeing destinations where I might spend Friday with an overnight stay and with convenient Saturday public transportation alternatives to Narita -does Nikko work? Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Sure, Nikko would work, and it's probably the most rewarding destination close to Tokyo. The train departs from Asakusa. You could stay in Tokyo itself, or stay in Narita. I recommend Tokyo. The Yaesu Terminal Hotel is a good business hotel. Hope this helps! Cheers, Chris _______________________ Williamsburg, VA My husband and I fell in love with Japan during a visit in October 2004. We'd like to go back, perhaps to see the cherry blossoms, but I'm reluctant to get swept up in huge crowds (the Kyoto subways at rush hour were culture shock for me!) What would you suggest? Where in Japan should we go and when to avoid the biggest crowds at that time? Also, we loved the temple at Myajima (sp?) outside of Hiroshima. Any other suggestions for sheer beauty and calming settings? Thanks! Bonnie Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I can understand your concern about crowds during cherrry blossom season. However, I still think Kyoto is the most rewarding cherry blossom destination in Japan. Within Kyoto, there are lots of places where you can enjoy the cherries without the crowds. The Kyoto Gosho has some spots with nice cherries and fewer people. You can also head up along the Kamo-gawa River. For scenic beauty, you might try the outlying temples in southern Nara. You might also head up to Kurama and Kibune, or even further up into Miyama-cho, in rural northern Kyoto Prefecture. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Memphis, TN: Next summer a group plans on visiting relatives in Japan from the southern end to the northern island. There will be 12 of us ranging in age from 11 to 72. Are there group rates for traveling to Japan, and what is the best means of transportation once we arrive there? Christy Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I assume you mean that you will go from Kyushu north to Hokkaido. There aren't group rates per se, but you can certainly save money by buying JR Rail Passes, and rail is definitely the way to move around Japan. The train system is among the world's best. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ New York, NY: Hello, We are travelling to Kyoto in the second week of October. We would love to know more about the different neighborhoods. Can you suggest a off the beaten track place to stay? Thanks so much! Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. You could try Ryokan Uemura. It's not exactly off the beaten track, but it's hidden down a lovely pedestrian lane. It's my favorite place to stay in Kyoto. You have to book ahead, though, to get a place, as there are only three rooms. Otherwise, Arashiyama is an interesting place to stay. The village of Kibune is another cool spot (literally, as the whole village is air-conditioned by the stream that runs thruough it). Hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Pittsburgh, PA: I will be going to Japan as part of a 3 country trip including Australia and New Zealand and want to figure out economically the best order to visit the countries in. I plan to take 4 weeks in total, with approximately 7-10 days in Japan. What are the must see areas outside of Tokyo and within Tokyo itself? Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Outside of Tokyo, I recommend Nikko, which is the real must-see in that area, and the Izu-hanto Peninsula. If you are more adventurous, you might also try heading down to the island of the Izu-shoto group. If you are climber, Mt Fuji is also a highlight. Within Tokyo, you MUST see Tsukiji Fish Market, and be sure to go at 5am for the tuna auction. After that, I recommend Meiji-jingu, Asakusa, East Shinjuku at night, the Tokyo Metro Goverment Office Buildings, and, Shibuya, which is where lots of Lost in Translation was filmed. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ New York, NY: Where are some best value places to stay and eat if you want to shop and see Japanese high tech innovative gadgets? Where is the section known as Electric City? I don't have a trip scheduled yet. I need to know how much to budget and if I can afford it. I saw gadgets on TV. It is not the same as being able to shop for these items. Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Japan's two biggest electronics neighbourhoods are Akihabara, in central Tokyo, and Den Den Town, in southern Osaka. Both are on the subways and train systems in these cities, so you can stay anywhere in either city and easily reach them. If you want to stay nearby, in Osaka, try a hotel in Namba/Shinsaibashi, and in Tokyo, anywhere within the loop line should work. Hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Seattle, WA: My family and I are planning a trip to Hong Kong for December. My brother and I plan to visit Japan upon the rest of the family's departure from Hong Kong and would like to spend about 7-10 days in Japan. We would like to know where is a good place to stay and explore that is not the tourist or big city areas such as Tokyo. Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I strongly recommend Kyoto, with a sidetrip to Nara. If you want to sample urban Japan, Osaka is only a half an hour away from Kyoto by train. And Kyoto is the most lovely city in Japan. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Modesto, CA: Can you recommend a good tour company for a single senior in April to Japan? I am interested in a small group tour that visits fewer cities with more depth rather than many cities of a few days each. Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I offer private walking tours of Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo. My website is If we can't help you, we can surely point you in the direction of someone who can. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Whitehouse, TX: I was planning a trip to Japan as a graduation present for my son. He has been fascinated with everything Japanese since he was 3 yrs old. We wanted to go in March (over spring break) or the beginning of June, 2007 for 8-10 days. We would like to see as much as possible; particularly, things dealing with video games and anime. We have been on some escorted tours, which are very informative; but, we would like more time to explore on our own. Please help us to acheive a balance between a tour and time on our own, plus help us choose which areas would be best suited for our short amount of time. Any help would be appreciated! Thank you, Karan Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I recommend Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto for you and your son. Tokyo has plenty of high-tech and pop-culture stuff for your son, and Osaka has some as well. Kyoto should be interesting for both of you. The Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum in Kyoto is great for both kids and adults. Please contact me via my website at if you would like more information. Hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Seattle, WA: My wife of 12 years was born in Tokyo. I am trying to plan a 2 to 4 week vacation for next year, a big b'day for her. I want to include Japan and Korea where her parents are from, but every time I check out airfares with both countries in a tentative itinerary, they get out of hand. It seems like we might have to go to Japan one year and then Korea the next. Also, I am looking at either Business Class or a Premium Coach like ANA provides from Los Angeles, I think. I'm 6'2" and need the extra room for the transpacific segments, at least. What would you suggest for us in terms of tour companies, airlines, etc.? Thanks, Hal Chris Rowthorn: Hi, I have flown various airlines between Japan and the States. I prefer JAL in terms of price and service. If price isn't an issue, then I suggest ANA, which is excellent. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Oxnard, CA: Hi Chris, My finacee and I are certified Disney fanatics, and after hearing all the great stories about Tokyo Disneyland, we have to see it for ourselves. Unlike the Disney theme parks in the US, there's not much help or information out there to help with planning a visit to Tokyo Disneyland. Can you provide any suggestions as far as planning and booking a trip, accommodations, and tickets to the theme park? Thanks! Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Off the top of my head, I cannot give you detailed information. But, I would be happy to do some research and get back to you. Can you please email me via my site at I hope to hear from you. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Houston, TX: Hi Chris! Three adults and three home-schooled daughters (ages 6, 8 & 10) will be traveling to Japan in March 2007 (arriving Narita 16 Mar & departing same 14 days later on 30 Mar). We are interested in off-the-beaten-track sights between Tokyo & Kyoto. If you were us, what would you recommend for sites & stays? How much should we plan ahead? Should we book all accommodations before arrival (we are interested in staying mostly in ryokans and minshukus)? Or would we be better off using a destination specialist to make all these arrangements for us? Any recommendations? Also, would you recommend the services of a tour guide for such a group as us? Any recommendations? Any suggestions for budget? Is a trip like this do-able on less than US$125/day per person (land only)? Thanks a bunch! Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Seems like time is up, so I am going to ask that you contact me via my website at I would be happy to offer some suggestions and advice. I hope to hear from you. Thanks, by the way, to everyone who sent in questions. I certainly hope that you enjoy your trips to Japan. It is, in my opinion, one of the world's most rewarding destinations. Please contact me if I can help in your planning in any way. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks again, Chris _______________________

Australia: The Great Ocean Walk

Australians joke that Americans tend to spend their trips Down Under ticking off visits to the three R's--the reef, the rock, and the road. To be more specific, that's the Great Barrier Reef, Ayers Rock (or Uluru), and the 171-mile Great Ocean Road, which runs between Torquay and Warrnambool in the southeastern state of Victoria. The road, which opened in 1932, was Australia's answer to the Pacific Coast Highway in California. The funny thing about it, however, is that for long stretches you can't really see the water at all. You have to use manpower, not horsepower, to access the best views. Indigenous Australians and fishermen have been walking the coast forever, but last December, Parks Victoria made it official--carving out a tidy 57-mile trail, adding clear signs, and giving it an appropriately grand name: the Great Ocean Walk. I love hiking, but not camping--I can only handle getting dirty if there's a nice hot shower and cozy bed at the end of the day. The Great Ocean Walk was created with people like me in mind. There are several points where day-trippers can drive in and out. And the trail, which can take up to eight days to complete, passes by several bed-and-breakfasts catering to walkers. (There are campsites, too, if that's more your style.) To make it even easier, a handful of companies have launched guided excursions along the trail, and the best value I could find--a three-night, inn-to-inn affair for $718--was offered by an established Australian company called Ecotrek. I became even more enthusiastic about the trip when I learned that my husband, Michael, and I wouldn't have to carry our bags; Ecotrek's staffers whisk them from one B&B to the next. The Great Ocean Road deserves comparison to the PCH, at least when it comes to curves. Jade Evans, Ecotrek's marketing director, picks Michael and me up at the Melbourne airport to drive us the three hours south along the road to our starting point at Cape Otway. I thought Australia was supposed to be about as warm as the California coast, but this is one of the least mild parts of the country. Rain lashes at the windshield, and the wipers furiously flick back and forth. Ecotrek rented us rain pants and jackets for $10 apiece, and it looks like we'll get our money's worth. "I reckon this is one of the coldest parts of Australia," Jade says. "The air comes straight off the Antarctic." Our guide, Simon Young, meets us at our first night's destination, the Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology, where we'll begin our hike the next morning. Simon looks a bit like Colin Farrell--at least to me--but he's far mellower; he's an acupuncturist on the side, and to say that he's quiet would be an understatement. The other couple who signed on to do the walk with us bowed out at the last minute, so Michael and I have Simon all to ourselves. Jade says that the company is accustomed to small groups; the normal minimum is four, but in fact she's currently organizing a walk for just one person. The Cape Otway Centre is part B&B, part animal hospital, and a labor of love for 20-something engaged couple Lizzie Corke and Shayne Neal. Lizzie, a zoologist, was named Environmentalist of the Year in 2005 by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and Shayne was trained in natural resource management. They're almost too idealistic to be true. Shayne and Lizzie built the five-bedroom building themselves, with mud bricks and recycled timber from a demolition yard in Geelong. The place is full-on eco, including the use of boiled rainwater in the taps and solar-power electricity. Lizzie, a cheery blonde, greets us at the door and takes our dinner order, a choice of chicken curry or sweet-potato gnocchi. Two guests at the Centre, a British couple named Jean and Chris, are well into their bottle of cabernet sauvignon, and launch right into stories from their day of birding. As we sit down at the table, Shayne arrives with rosy cheeks after hours of practicing his plowing. Plowing is a competitive sport, we're fascinated to learn, and Shayne is ranked the sixth-best plower in Australia. After dinner, Lizzie takes a seat by the fire, digs a furry creature out of a basket, and begins bottle-feeding him. "This is Arthur," she says, testing the temperature of the milk on her wrist. "He's a lovely, lovely little swamp wallaby." The animal, which looks like a miniature kangaroo, is one of a handful she's nursing back to health. On the 165-acre property the next day, she introduces us to two other patients in her care: Lillie, a red-shouldered wallaby, and Elmo, a nine-month-old koala. Jade was right about the weather--it's cold outside--but we fall asleep under the softest wool blanket known to man. There are no shades covering the windows, and a sky full of stars I've never seen in the northern hemisphere serves as our eco-friendly night-light. At 7 A.M., we wake up to muesli and fresh farm-raised eggs. All this pampering and we haven't even worked up a sweat yet, so I'm eager to get started. Our first day is by far the hardest. We begin at what must be one of the steepest parts of the trail, about 19 miles in. After a quick, sharp ascent, we see the ocean stretching out in front of us, one long mass of crashing waves and coves underneath high, green cliffs. We're hundreds of feet up, and yet the waves are so loud we have to raise our voices to be heard. Over six hours of hiking, we see waves, hills, and coves; waves, hills, and coves. We become blasé about even the most dramatic view. We grill Simon about all the local plants, and his answer tends to be, "That's a good question...." The Great Ocean Walk is still new, so we cut him some slack about not being the world's greatest expert on the flora. Instead we ask him about other things, such as the huge first-aid kit he's hauling--he has an arsenal of stories about the harrowing rescues he's made--as well as how likely it is we'll see a snake (very) and how likely it is we'll be bitten by a snake (not at all). At a certain point on any vacation, a person can grow a little weary of talking only to her spouse--and Simon's quiet demeanor isn't much of a distraction. I'm hopeful we'll run into some grizzled Australian walkers, but we don't come across a single person the entire day. The view does remind me of the California coast, but there's no chance you could pass a day there without seeing another person, car, or even a building. It's a remarkable thing to have a place like this all to yourself. "Welcome to our center of well-being," says Marianne Rieve, handing us cups of organic berry tea. She and her husband, Bryan O'Neill, opened the three-room Castle Cove B&B last December. Practitioners of reflexology, Reiki, and massage, they do treatments in the living room for $45 an hour. They also have plenty of interesting things to talk about. In her former life, Marianne worked at Sotheby's in London, where she investigated suspected reproductions of famous pieces. Marianne and Bryan's 1960s farmhouse blends influences from their past and present careers. It's decorated with restored antiques, Egyptian watercolors, and dreamcatchers, and the rooms all have the most comfortable orthopedic mattresses and pillows. We're scheduled to stay here two nights, hiking in from one direction one day, the other the next (Marianne and Bryan drop off their guests at the trailheads). On our way to Johanna Beach, a sometime site for the World Championship Tour of surfing, a thuggish-looking alpha-male kangaroo blocks our path and stares us down. We stop and look around. There must be at least 20 of them--a 'roo colony on the ridge. Lizzie told us that a group of kangaroos is called a "mob," and now I understand why. Simon takes the lead, assuring us that the mob boss isn't looking for trouble: "If harassed, a kangaroo will give you a bit of a box, but otherwise, they'll leave you alone." Sure enough, we come away unpummeled, with plenty of photographs. There's nothing like seeing a kangaroo to remind you just how far away from home you are. Australia is fun because it's familiar enough to be easily navigated, but different enough to keep things interesting. Take the plants, for instance: The strangest is the grass tree (the "bastard bush," as Simon calls some other plant, doesn't live up to its nickname). The top of a grass tree looks like sea grass, and the bottom resembles the prickly outside of a pineapple. The plant thrives in the Otways region, and at one point along the trail, we're up to our necks in the soft bristles. It feels as if we're walking through a car wash. A lot of people treat the Great Ocean Road like it's simply a highway to the Twelve Apostles, limestone formations off the coast. In fact, Marianne and Bryan get a lot of late-night, last-minute guests who pull over when they realize exactly how far the Apostles are from Melbourne (the 169-mile drive takes about five hours, because the road is very twisty). The Apostles--there are actually 13, but not all are visible from the outlook--are the result of the erosion of the cliffs. The erosion continues: The "ninth Apostle" crumbled last year. On our last morning, following a short loop hike, we drive 30 minutes past the end of the Great Ocean Walk to see the formations. The Apostles are stunning, like statuesque jigsaw-puzzle pieces that have drifted away from the puzzle. And they're definitely worth a visit. But to be honest, I'm a little bit underwhelmed. The viewpoint parking lot is full, and for the first time in days, Michael and I are surrounded by a mob of another kind: tourists. How to walk the Walk The ideal time to do this walk is late October to mid-May, spring through fall in Australia. The rest of the year, it's too cold and wet. Ecotrek customizes trips in terms of length, difficulty, and sites (011-61/8-8346-4155, Booking with Ecotrek makes the planning infinitely easier, but it's also possible to drive yourself and stay at the inns we visited. The Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology starts at $183, and includes guided day and night walks and breakfast (011-61/3-5237-9297, Castle Cove B&B, in Glenaire, starts at $84 (011-61/3-5237-9100).