Cruising to Havana: Key West, 90 Miles to Cuba.
My wife Robbie and I have been doing some cruising. I have not blogged about any of our cruises yet. I thought I would start with our cruise to Havana.
Update on Cuba. This is a multiple part post that I have been working on for a few weeks. As I finished writing about our first day in Havana, we learned of a US ban on travel to Cuba. This is very sad, we really enjoyed our trip to Havana. We were looking forward to going back and seeing more of Cuba. I not only wanted to share our experiences, I also wanted to inspire readers to visit Cuba. Sadly, posts like these may be the only way that any of us will be able to visit Cuba in the future.
There are many factors to consider when choosing a cruise. I could probably do a whole post just about choosing a cruise. You may choose a cruise because of the departure port, cruise line, specific ship, cruising days, dates, cost, itinerary, destination, probably many others. The two most important factors for us for this cruise were destination and itinerary. We definitely wanted to see Cuba! There were several cruise lines going to Cuba and a lot of those were spending one or two days in Havana. We picked this Royal Caribbean Cruise because it was going to be docked in Havana for the longest period of time. We were in Havana for two full days. Some of the other cruises were spending the night in Havana, but leaving early on the second day. Only staying in Havana for a day and a half or less.
The hard part done it was time to pack our bags. If your going to do some cruising, living in central Florida has it’s advantages. We are about 20 minutes from one cruise port and only a few hours drive from 4 others. Not needing to fly to a cruise port is a huge advantage. This cruise was sailing out of Miami. So we packed up the car and drove to Miami.
This cruise was a bit shorter than our other cruises. Other than Havana we only stopped in one other port, Key West. We have been to Key West before, but it’s always nice to go back. The sun was rising as we docked. Cruise ships going to Key West, dock at Mallory Square. This is good and bad. It’s good because Mallory Square is walking distance to almost everything Key West has to offer. It’s about two blocks to Sloppy Joe’s bar and Duval Street. From there all of Key West awaits you. So there was no real need to purchase a shore excursion from the cruise line. In some ports doing a shore excursion is a good idea. Whenever possible though, we like to explore a port on our own. I was looking for something different since we have been to Key West before. I found Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden. Nancy runs a parrot rescue from her home. Since Robbie and I are parrot owners and enjoy visiting with parrots this was a great choice for us. We sat in Nancy’s beautiful garden chatting with Nancy and the parrots for quite a while. Nancy was telling us about her birds and we told Nancy about our birds. We were only a few months from a major hurricane that devastated the Keys and many other parts of Florida. Nancy was telling us about all of the hurricane damage. Key West and the Keys had recovered very well, but it had been a long few months. Nancy was great and we enjoyed our time in Nancy’s Secret Garden.
We walked from there to the Old Town Mexican Cafe for a nice lunch. After lunch we walked down to the Southern Most Point, the most southern point in the United States and only 90 miles from Cuba! From there we had a leisurely walk on Duval Street, taking in the sights on our way back to Mallory Square. We arrived in Mallory Square with enough time for a margarita before we needed to board the ship. The bad thing about docking in Mallory Square, is that it’s Mallory Square! Probably the most popular place in the country to watch the sunset. But who can see the sunset with huge cruise ships in the way. So the ships must be on their way before sunset. This somewhat limits your time in port and you miss the famous Mallory Square sunset. You should really see a Mallory Square sunset at least once. The sunset is the star, but there are lots of street performers and tons of people watching as well. The sunset is just as spectacular from the ship. We were excited to be on our way to Havana!
The CN Tower Toronto
No visit to Toronto would be complete without taking a trip to the top of the CN Tower. The tower was constructed by the Canadian National Railway, hence CN Tower. The tower is 1,815 ft. tall and it was the worlds tallest free-standing structure from 1975-2007. There are three visitor levels and a revolving restaurant. Robbie and I skipped the restaurant on this trip. We were visiting in the off season, so we just went right to the elevator. It looks like certain times of the year there can be a rather long wait to get to the top. The elevator ride is a short one. You are traveling at 20 ft. per second, the trip to the Indoor Lookout Level takes 58 seconds! The elevator shaft is glass so you get a nice view of the city on your way up. Oh, you may or may not want to look down, the floor is glass too. Your ride ends at the beautiful Indoor Lookout Level at 1,135 ft. It’s a large climate controlled area with huge glass widows. You get amazing panoramic views of Toronto and Lake Ontario. Don’t forget to look up at the mirrored ceiling, very cool. The friendly CN staff will happily take your photo with your camera.
Next you can visit the Outdoor Observation Terrace. Protected by wire mesh you can feel the wind in your face at 1,122 ft. get a 360 deg. birds eye view of the area. I think we walked around 3 times. Next visit the Glass Floor. There is an area inside on the terrace level that has a glass floor. The glass is super thick and super strong and super safe, but walking over the glass still made my tummy crawl! Standing on the glass and looking 1,122 ft. down is quite the thrill! You know nothing is going to happen but still, your seemingly standing on thin air! Your brain is telling you, this.is.not, a good idea!
I’m not sure if we were lucky or if this is an off season perk. On the day Robbie and I visited the tower, the trip to the Sky-Pod was free! There is normally an extra fee. Another short elevator ride takes you to the highest level of the tower at 1,465 ft. The pod has smaller glass windows and a great view of the area. For you thrill seekers, there is the Edge Walk. For $225ca you can strap on a harness, connect to a safety cable and walk around the outside of the tower and hang out over the edge! Maybe next time, NOT!
Toronto Architectural Photography
Our trip to Toronto was a vacation, not really a photography trip. However I did try to slip in a little serious photography where I could. One of my numerous favorite subjects to photograph, is architectural abstract photography. In-fact I started this blog as part of an architectural abstract portfolio assignment that I was doing for my Photography Certificate. See The final 10. Toronto is filled with loads of great architecture. As Robbie and I were taking our self-guided walking tour of Toronto, I was seeing some really nice architecture. I couldn’t help myself, I had to take a few architectural photos as we walked through the city.
The Dog Park Toronto
One of the things I really like about Toronto are the many little parks scattered around the city. There seemed to be a small park along the way to wherever we were going. Sitting just behind the flatiron is Berczy Park. This was a particularly cute park. Robbie and I affectionately called it The Dog Park. More accurately I suppose it’s the park with the dog fountain. The fountain is adorned with statues of 27 dogs and 1 cat. It’s a really fun fountain. The park really does cater to dogs though. The water in the fountain is purified and dogs are encouraged to drink it. There is also a designated gravel area for dogs to release the water later. William Berczy was an architect and surveyor who helped to form early Toronto.
The Gooderham Building, aka Toronto’s Flatiron Building
Toronto has loads of modern glass skyscrapers. Sitting among the monoliths of modern architecture a few remnants of the past still exist. One of the most prominent is the Gooderham Building, aka the Flatiron Building. The term flatiron building usually brings to mind a certain building in New York City. Torontonians are quick to point out that the Gooderham is ten years older. The building was owned by the Gooderham family of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery. It was the company’s main office for many years.
The Gooderham will be probably be on your way to or from the St. Lawrence market or the Distillery District. The Distiilery District is the old Gooderham and Worts Distillery that has been renovated into restaurants, bars and shops. The lower level of the flatiron contains a fantastic British pub.
The Flatiron Pub is a great place to stop for refreshments. I don’t think Robbie and I thought it was great only because we were very hot, tired and thirsty from sightseeing. It really is a nice pub! As I was relaxing with a pint of Canadian, I noticed that one of the windows behind the bar was open. As people were walking down the street, for a very brief moment their reflection could be seen in the window. I was having fun trying to catch the reflections in the window. The images didn’t quite live up to my vision of the scene, but it was fun. The pub has a nice menu and gave us an opportunity to try poutine, a Canadian delicacy. Poutine is french fries, sprinkled with chunks of a mild cheese and covered in brown gravy, very yummy! We had a wonderful time at the Flatiron. Oh, did I mention that Toronto is filled with art.
Toronto at Night
I like to get out at night to do some photography when I can. On our trip to Toronto we had full days with lots of walking. So by the time the sun went down I was pretty beat. Luckily the Strathcona Hotel, where we were staying, was a half block away from a pretty decent view of the CN Tower. So one night I grabbed my gear and walked down to the corner to take some photos. A woman was walking by and stopped to ask what I was photographing. She followed my lens and answered her own question. When she realized that I was taking a photo of the CN Tower, she said that she hadn’t noticed you could see the tower from this corner. I had to admit to her that the first time I walked by, I missed it too. We had a nice conversation, she was from New Brunswick CA. We were also right next to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, the building with the flags. The Royal York is where Queen Elizabeth II stays when she comes to Toronto. Pretty much the whole royal family has stayed there at one time or another. This was the weekend of the big royal wedding, so none of the royals were there. Fun fact: the Royal York has 350,000 honey bees. They have a garden on the roof to grow veggies for the restaurant. The bees pollinate the garden and provide honey.
Toronto Centre Island
Toronto has a great park system. One of the biggest parks are the Toronto Islands. They are a chain of small islands in Lake Ontario, just off of the Toronto shoreline. My wife Robbie and I spent an afternoon on Centre Island. The islands are a short ferry ride from Toronto Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. You should stop by Longos on the way to the ferry terminal and pick up some picnic supplies. We were going to, but didn’t, and wish we had. The ferry terminal is tucked behind a Weston hotel. Just keep going around the right side of the building toward the back and you will see the terminal. Pick up your ticket at the ticket booth and go through the gate. Have a seat in one of the brightly colored Adirondack chairs for a short wait for the ferry. We went to Centre Island, there are two other options. We were there in the off season; there were not many people on our ferry. I think during the summer it can get quite crowded. The Toronto Islands are a popular recreational destination. Centre Island is a large green space, perfect for picnicking. There are a few public charcoal grills that you can use. Bring a blanket to spread on the grass for your picnic. Have fun sitting on the bright orange tulip chairs. Fold the seat down and enjoy the view of Toronto. Centreville is a small amusement park for the young ones, they will have a blast! It was just getting ready to open for the season when we were there. Centre Island is a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon walking, jogging or biking the paths around the island. Not to mention the awesome views of the Toronto skyline.
Visiting Toronto Ontario, Canada
My wife Robbie had been wanting to see Niagara Falls, so we decided to plan a trip there. There are two main options when flying to Niagara Falls. One, you can fly into Buffalo NY. Two, you can fly into Toronto ON. CA. I decided that Toronto would be more interesting than Buffalo. Toronto Pearson International Airport is a fairly large airport. We had some difficulty finding our way from one place to the next. Top tip; “Study and download the terminal map onto your phone.” I’m looking at the map now and even after being there, I would still have trouble navigating. Downtown Toronto is about 15 miles from the airport. When I booked the trip I was able to get inexpensive tickets for the UP Train. The UP Train is a quick and easy way to get into Toronto. It takes you into Toronto Union station. Our hotel was a short one and a half block walk from Union Station. The Strathcona Hotel is a cute boutique hotel in the heart of Toronto. The rooms were a bit on the smallish side, but everything else was great. This is a fantastic location, we were within walking distance of almost every place we wanted to see. Tired, weary, thirsty and hungry from our journey we decided to try the Srath Pub, in the hotel’s lower level. The Pub, as it’s affectionately called, turned out to be pretty nice. Hotel guests as well as locals frequent The Pub. If a group of construction workers stop in after work, it must be a decent place.
Toronto is a very large bustling city, very comparable to New York City. There were people in business suits scurrying from place to place. Loads of horn blowing traffic in a hurry to get where they were going. We found Toronto to be a clean, friendly and very walk-able city. All around you crowds of people are going to their next business meeting or the next spot on their must see list, speaking many different languages. We are not sure, but we don’t think we met anyone actually from Toronto. The waitress from one of the restaurants that we liked was from Ireland. It’s a very international city. There are way too many things to see and do in Toronto. On our four day visit we barley scratched the surface.
One of the things you need to do for sure is take a stroll along Toronto’s waterfront. Toronto is right on the shoreline of Lake Ontario. There are miles of walkways along the lakes shoreline. It’s a very relaxing and scenic way to spend some time.
Toronto is a very artsy city as well. Just about everyplace you look there is some sort of art. It’s a bit hard to see in the photo but these workers are adding an eagle sculpture to the side of this building. You can see the eagles head on the building on the right edge of the photo. His wing is still on a flatbed about to be lifted into place. On our way back the eagle is perched with both wings attached.
There is architecture of all types downtown. I was constantly clicking away at one building or another. Everywhere you looked there were tulips. We found out later that Toronto and Holland have a history together and every year Holland sends thousands of tulips to Toronto. It was very beautiful and we were lucky to be there at the right time.
Longos, what would we have done without Longos! Longos is a great little grocery store. We stopped there several times for supplies. We got some great things for breakfast, lunch and snacks as well as soda and water. We also got some great maple cookies and maple syrup. Empty backpacks are great for transporting supplies back to your hotel. Oh, get the cashier to make a little handle for your 12pk of water, it works great! We found that we adapted pretty well to being big city dwellers. Speaking of backpacks everybody in Toronto has one. You will want to leave a little room in your backpack. Just above Longos on the right is the LCBO. This is where you get your wine and tequila.
Much more to see and do in my next posts on visiting Toronto.