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Monday, December 09, 2019

Exploring One Of America’s Newest National Parks

By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

One of America’s newest national parks was around here … somewhere. Just not right here, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the middle of a housing development in North Las Vegas, a Nevada city about 20 miles north of, yes, that Las Vegas.

I suppose my GPS did the best it could when I typed in “Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.” It got me to Tule Springs Road. It probably couldn’t find park coordinates because even though it was designated a national monument on Dec. 19, 2014, the 22,650-acre tract isn’t exactly on the map yet.

The Travel Nevada website is telling:

“Because Tule Springs is a new park, there is no visitor center, facilities or parking areas. Right now, to access the park people can park on nearby public roads in the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, and they can enter the monument on foot.”

So even if I parked and walked 20 miles or so, where exactly could I enter the park?

Still, once I heard (overheard, really, during a day tour in Las Vegas) about the new park, it became a must-see during my weeklong trip in the desert. I was optimistic. The stumble-upon is my usual MO, anyway, and all those park acres meant the odds were good that I’d find it.

It was intriguing on two counts: First, the opportunity to get a peek at a brand-new national park, and obviously this one was fairly unknown. It was like a sneak preview of a new ship or theme park. And I wouldn’t have to fight crowds to enjoy it. No visitor center, no amenities? I could rough it. Second, the fossil beds — the park’s main feature.

Las Vegas wasn’t always filled with casinos, and it wasn’t always a desert. In fact, the region rocked with all kinds of wildlife starting about 200,000 years ago and persisting, some say, right up to about 3,000 years ago. This area was home to a variety of big, big wildlife, including ice age Columbian mammoths, whose tusks were more than 6 feet long and whose molars were as big as a human head; camelops, supersize versions of today’s models; American lions that weighed up to 1,100 pounds; sloths the size of sports cars; plus ancient horses, dire wolves, sabertoothed cats and bison.

In the early 1900s, scientists made the first fossil finds in what is technically called the Upper Las Vegas Wash. Since then, thousands of fossils have been discovered in just a few dig areas. What is unique in Tule Springs is that the fossils cover a vast time span — between 200,000 and 250,000 years (geological time estimates carry a bit of wiggle room). Scientists have the opportunity to study changes in climate over that long period, and its effects on populations and species survival.

Tule Springs is a national monument, a designation given to sites that contain “at least one resource of national significance,” according to the National Park Service’s definition. Apparently it is so rich with fossils from the ice age that you might very well stumble upon some 200,000-year-old bone or tooth.

Yes, I’d walk, well, I guess 20 miles for a camelops.

So getting back to getting there. I’d remembered seeing something about a parking site near a “big dig.” I envisioned a smaller version of the 1½-decade Boston Big Dig tunnel project and decided to look for a major construction site. I didn’t have to look hard. Bulldozers and people in hardhats were everywhere. Desert was being pushed around, housing developments rising in its wake like weeds.

I stopped to ask a few locals for directions. Nobody had heard of the national park. How was that possible? Had the neighbors been surprised when park rangers opened the gates of Yellowstone?

At a county park, I was thankful to get some information. Employees there had heard of Tule Springs — they had a newspaper article about a mammoth tusk find on their bulletin board — though they hadn’t actually been there. Someone had told them it was just down Durango Drive, which ended in a T-intersection at Moccasin Street.

They also handed me a strip of paper with an email contact for someone who could arrange a tour of the national park. I put that in a safe place and headed down Durango, increasingly skeptical as I passed still-unmitigated suburban development.

Then I saw the T-intersection. The narrow sidewalk across the road meant that it was not just a physical barricade to traffic and further urban sprawl. It was a border, a boundary between the familiar and the hard-to-believe. Today and millenniums long past. The Las Vegas of casinos and the Las Vegas camelops.

It was 91 degrees outside the car. The sun pounced, my pupils retreated into pinpricks as I stood looking up at the sign: “Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.”

It stood at the metal fence that marked the border, a physical divide and an official boundary between a national park and the rest of America. I gazed off at the new park, a strange sea of gray and rust and pink desert sand rippling into the distant smudge of the Sheep Mountains. A roof of sky was so bright and blue that you’d find it futile to explain what it does to your heart.

An unlikely place to put a park.

Then again, somebody had to draw a line somewhere.

Sandy Croteau was one of the line-drawers. The diminutive woman who greeted me a few days after my first park encounter was going to be my tour guide that morning.

Before the fight to save Tule Springs, Croteau knew nothing about paleontology, had never been an activist and, as a real estate broker, had a vested interest in growth and development. She was just a fan of the desert, who fell so hard in love with it that she moved from California 15 years ago.

The Upper Las Vegas Wash was under the federal Bureau of Land Management at the time, and in 2004, the agency put it on a list of lands it planned to sell. By 2007, though, the BLM had learned about the trove of fossils and changed course, Croteau said. It sent a representative to homeowner meetings to raise interest in forming a citizens group to help protect this land.

Croteau, who lived near a section of Tule Springs, hadn’t known about the fossils until she attended one of those meetings. She left with a mission.

“If someone didn’t do something, this would be gone forever,” she said, speaking of the desert-scape before us. Her voice quivered, “This is our land. I wanted to save it.”

She and four other self-described “old ladies in tennis shoes” formed a nonprofit, Protectors of Tule Springs. They knocked on doors, getting 10,000 residents to sign a petition against the sale. They involved mayors and council members whose municipalities touched Tule Springs. They enlisted the Nellis Air Force Base nearby and the University of Nevada paleontology department.

They were stunned by how quickly everyone agreed, supported and came together to protect Tule Springs. Then again, they may have realized how much of the fossil treasure had already been lost and figured this would be their last chance.

They needed the highest level of protection available for Tule Springs — against vandals, fossil raiders and developers. The BLM didn’t have the manpower, so officials in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Clark County and the Southern Nevada Paiute tribe drew up proposals for Congress to create a new park. Under the management of the National Park Service, Tule Springs would have sufficient infrastructure and staff to protect its treasures.

Not only would it be protected, but it could become a major asset for the community and for tourism in Las Vegas and beyond. The idea was to make it the country’s first ice age park, a place where visitors could not only enjoy scenery but learn, watch scientific digs, even participate in the work, as well.

The fossils are the big attraction, but after we set off, I learned there was additional treasure to discover.

“Over here, look!” Croteau called.

I tear my eyes away from a patch of soil I am sure is hiding both mammoth tusks and scorpions and go look. While fossils are the headliners of Tule Springs, our first stop is at one of the three still-living-but-rare plants you’ll find in the region: the Las Vegas bearpoppy.

I had been told that this is one of the rarest of the rare flora of America, yet there it sat as if no big deal in the midst of the cracked mud. I could see why it’s endangered; I wanted to pull it up to take home. It is the cutest plant I’ve ever seen: a cross between a barrel cactus and a sheepdog, with silvery leaves and silvery fur. It looked as if it might jump up and giggle off to an appointment.

Not far from the bearpoppy, I had my first look at that elusive “big dig” I’d heard about. It was a flat, clear, square patch in the ground, the footprint of a tent. The big dig wasn’t an urban traffic project, as I’d imagined, but a scientific dig from the early 1960s, when researches went there to test newly perfected carbon-dating technology.

At the time, scientists used big construction equipment to dig the extensive trenches that are part of the landscape today. The Park Service has decided the big dig is part of Tule Springs’ history and will be preserving the trenches, the campsites and even the garbage. Rusty can with bullet holes — trash; rusty can of spam — artifact.

Even more of a problem for the untrained eye is discerning fossils from plain old soil and rock. I probably imagined I had found about 20 sabertoothed tiger teeth, which turned out to be nothing more than rocks. I probably walked right by a dire-wolf jawbone. I was glad Croteau was along to steer me toward the good stuff. She had taken a paleontology course to know what to look for.

Anywhere I stood, I could have stayed and looked. And looked, and thought about the past, the millenniums just beneath my feet.

It was getting hot, I realized, perspiration stinging as it rolled into my eyes. I realized I needed to get back to the car and leave soon to catch my flight.

Croteau was about to turn a corner ahead. I could follow her to what I was sure was a mammoth tusk with my name on it. Or I could go back the other way to my car, and to the airport.

I pulled out my cellphone and called my airline. I could fly home tomorrow. How many times would I get this incredible a look at the very long ago past?


WHERE: Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is about 20 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip. Its 22,650 acres stretch in a very irregular zigzag along U.S. Highway 95 north of Aliante and Centennial Hills to Creech Air Force Base.

LOGISTICS: Two intersections that provide easy access to the park are at the edges of housing developments in the North Las Vegas area: At Durango and Moccasin roads and at Decatur and Horse roads. Street parking is available at both sites.

KEEP IN MIND: The park is open during daylight hours. Remember that this is the Mojave Desert, and midday temperatures in the summer can hit 100 degrees plus. It’s also desert-dry, which means you need to carry water and keep drinking whether you’re thirsty or not.

If you’re hiking, be aware that there are as yet no trails or markers for directions. Keep track of your route via GPS.

Protectors of Tule Springs, the park’s advocacy group, offers free hikes on a regular basis. You can contact the group at: For more information on the organization, go to

MORE INFORMATION: The National Park Service website at

©2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: In Dec. 2014 Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument became the newest member of the national park system. Its nearly 23,000 acreas are a treasure trove of fossils from the Ice Age. As of now, the monument has none of the usual amenities of well-established national parks – little signage, no visitor center, not even directions how to get there. (Jill Schensul/The Record/TNS)


Ghost Towns — Where Boom Turned To Bust

By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

Here, in the desert, nothing moves. Nothing but the dust in the wind.

Oh, and maybe the occasional lizard, like this little guy, doing push-ups on a rock in the shade of a mesquite bush.

Lizards, and snakes, probably scorpions, and the wind are the only inhabitants of the places I am looking for here in the desert. Because in these places, it is the ghosts of the American West who hold forth.

Not the average creepy individual ghosts, the vengeful murder victims and the lost halfway widows and the peripatetic poltergeists — though yes, you may find those here, too.

These are the ghosts whose skeletons are the crumbled bones of buildings, whose headstones are the signs bleached to illegible by the sun. The spirits here are not of individuals, but of humanity in general, from its hopes and its dreams to its greed and its folly.

These are the phantoms of places, of history that have come to be known as ghost towns.

All were places once booming, places the dreamers moved heaven and earth to get to. They came for a treasure, a mother lode, an impossibility made true. On a rumor, through the grapevine, at great peril to life and limb, they came. Pioneers, lone men, hard men, with determination or nothing left to lose, who came and laid claims, and picked up shovels and planted dynamite. Lives and fortunes played out in accelerated real time, but the heydays were numbered. The hard times may have taken decades, but more often only years, to draw to swift and disastrous ends.

That’s when the people — the bankers, the paupers, the ladies of the night and the families who believed their futures would always be bright — saw the end looming. They left in droves.

The towns were all the evidence that remained of what had gone before. The ghosts of boomtowns past.

There are ghost towns everywhere — you’d be surprised at where you can find them, all over the world. But the American West is where you’ll find those quintessentially busted boomtowns.

Today some have gotten a second wind as tourist attractions; others remain “Hey, look at that!” places occasionally stumbled upon by the lost. Many have been tarted up again, with signage and souvenirs, while others remain virtually untouched – except by the wind, the occasional rain and the sweep-swish whisking of the sidewinder.

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I built in some extra time to go in search of ghost towns. In this part of the country, you can’t roll a pair of dice without hitting someplace romantically abandoned.

So I rented a car and headed out, along interstates that went from traffic jams to better-carry-water-in-case-I-get-stuck-or-I’ll-die-before-someone-finds-me; that went from 65 mph limits to 70 and then 75 and then 80 (would have taken photos as evidence, but was driving too fast); that went from neon billboards advertising casinos and Penn & Teller to the sides of semi-trucks painted with NUDE GIRLS and big yellow lettered store signs for Area 51 Cafe decorated with aliens.

I knew, then, that I was getting close. The wind picked up. The ghost towns were waiting at the end of the road.


The most common instigator in the boom-to-bust-to-ghost-town evolution, as you can guess, is the mother lode. Or at least finding traces of minerals that promised ore galore and commensurate riches.

And, contrary to the name, Rhyolite, about 120 miles northeast of Las Vegas and situated at the eastern edge of Death Valley National Park, was not established to unearth the eponymous mineral. Rhyolite was just the most common mineral miners hit while extracting the gold (and some silver) in this godforsaken part of Nevada. Or, as one local explained it, “Rhyolite was what the miners swore at.”

Two wandering miners, Shorty Harris and Ed Cross, are credited with making the find on Aug. 4, 1904, when they noticed an errant piece of quartz with rhyolite and flecks of gold.

“The quartz was just full of free gold,” Shorty said. “Talk about rich! Why, gee whiz, it was great.”

Mining began in earnest in 1905. Industrialist Charles M. Schwab got a piece of the action early on and invested heavily in infrastructure, including piped water, electric lines and railroad transportation. By 1907, Rhyolite had electric lights, water mains, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, a school, an opera house and a stock exchange. But the boom began to bust quickly after the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 began drying up the pool of excited investors. A failing U.S. economy further slowed operations. By 1911 mining was over.

Rhyolite was once the biggest town in southern Nevada. And today it’s a pretty extensive ghost town. Well known, as ghost towns go, it is a relatively popular tourist draw. Not like it’s swarming with humanity. No, I probably saw a total of two dozen people all day. But it was harder to catch that all-alone-with-ghosts-of-miners-past feeling than, say, my first and truly eerie encounter decades earlier at the one-shack-plus-snakes town of Bumble Bee, Ariz.

Still, as the day wound down, and I got thirstier, and the dirt and pebbles and rocks and old pillars of the once-mighty bank cast longer and longer shadows, and the people in their rental Hyundais and Porsche convertibles snapped their last images and drove off in search of cold beers and hot showers, I got some alone time.

Time to think about Shorty and Ed, the miners, the exhilaration, the bankers, the greed, the TNT, the spam, the hopes, the shysters … all gone now. Out here in the blasting sun, your pupils get a workout. The size of pinpricks when you get outside, maybe that does something to your vision. I started thinking about gold here. Thought maybe these guys bugged out fast, and missed some. Thought, as I crunch-crunched around the back of the bank, thought maybe I saw a glint of something yellow just a little… bit… farther… ahead.

Notable features: The ruins are extensive, with a bank, miners shacks, print house, mercantile shop, etc. The train depot (privately owned) and the Bottle House are both entirely intact. The bottle house, yes, was built almost completely of actual bottles — 51,000 beer bottles cemented with adobe mud. It was restored by Paramount Pictures in January 1925 for a movie, “The Airmail.”

Before you get to the ghost town, you’ll find Goldwell Outdoor Art Museum, a pretty cool collection of seven large sculptures — most notably a ghostlike “Last Supper” started by a Belgian artist and some of his compatriots.


It took a while to find the ghost town at Silver Reef. It’s only about 15 miles northeast of St. George, which happens to be a big town — a reference point — in western Utah. It’s also either one mile west of Leeds — or it is in Leeds, depending on your source. The area today is vast vistas of sandstone in red and gray, worth the drive even if you never did find the little ghost town that sits at the end of a development of tony houses at the end of a quiet residential road.

Quite a different scene from the one 150 years ago, after John Kemple, a prospector from Nevada, discovered a vein of silver in a sandstone formation here in 1866. It is one of only two places on earth where silver was actually found in sandstone, and for a while nobody believed the silver was real. It was, and there was enough of it to generate this particular flash in the pan boomtown, which lasted seven years before its fortunes began to decline.

Notable features: There’s a museum, as well as the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, restored to a more or less original version from the 1870s.

The ruins are surrounded by and interspersed among modern upscale houses, and even the rather crazy-looking (turrets, for one) studio/art gallery of bronze sculptor Jerry Anderson. In fact the scenery has made this area a magnet for artists, and several communities in the area offer galleries and studio tours.


About 25 miles west of Cedar City, Utah, down an increasingly lonely Route 56 and then 5 miles down Old Iron Town Road are the fenced-in ruins of this former boomtown. Originally called Iron City, the ghost town was begun by Brigham Young, the head of the Mormons, who quickly realized that the fastest way to an independent Mormon state was to make the new colony self-sufficient. And one important factor in this plan was iron, which was very expensive to ship from the eastern United States. The operation was set up to take advantage of nearby Iron Mountain.

At its height, Old Iron Town had a schoolhouse, a furnace, an arastra for grinding fine sand for molds, a blacksmith shop, a general store, charcoal kilns and cabins for its workers. It was a productive effort, but several obstacles, including a lack of transportation, led to its demise after seven years; the site was abandoned in 1876.

Iron Mountain remains one of the richest iron deposits in the country.

Notable features: Preservationists decided not to restore the ruins but leave them in their natural state. Visitors today will see the blast furnace chimney, ruined walls of the foundry, the arastra, a charcoal kiln and a cabin. The beehive kiln is impressively intact. Though off the beaten track, the site has bathrooms and a picnic area. There are also two short hikes through the ruins and the desert.

Nearby is the old pioneers cemetery in Little Pinto. And on your way to Snow Canyon — definitely worth a visit for its stunning, poured-rock-looking lava formations — is Mountain Meadows, site of the 1857 massacre of the Fancher Party Wagon Train by local Mormon settlers. There are memorials to the victims off Route 18.


RHYOLITE, NEV.: Heading north on U.S. 95 from Las Vegas, travel 116 miles to Beatty, Nevada’s gateway to Death Valley National Park. Rhyolite is 4 miles west of Beatty on State Route 374 and is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. More info: or

GOLDWELL OPEN AIR MUSEUM: You’ll come to the museum just before you get to Rhyolite. The art is accessible 24/7; the visitor center, which has some history of Rhyolite, a small guide for 50 cents (or download your own guide online in advance for free), plus beautiful handmade flutes for sale by visitor center overseer Richard Stephens, is open most days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except Sundays (in summer, usually closed by 2 p.m. because of the heat). More info:

SILVER REEF, UTAH: The ghost town is 18 miles north of St. George, Utah. From Las Vegas (or St. George) take I-15 north to exit 22 toward UT-228S/Leeds. Take that 0.7 mile and turn left onto Silver Reef Road (it becomes Oak Grove Road) and just past Juniper Way turn right on Wells Fargo Road, which takes you to the ghost town. The Wells Fargo Express Building Museum offers guided tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. during regular hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday through Saturday; $3 per person or $10 per family (435-879-2254). More info:

OLD IRON TOWN, UTAH: From Cedar City, Utah, head west on Highway 56 for approximately 20 miles. Turn south onto Old Iron Town Road and go south for approximately 5 miles to the ruins. The park service recommends visitors first stop at the Frontier Homestead State Park Museum in Cedar City to get an overview of the history of the area and to pick up a self-guided tour brochure. Old Iron Town is open year-round during daylight hours. More Info:, 435-586-9290 or

RESOURCES Comprehensive and easy-to-use site for background information on ghost towns in general as well as a search engine for ghost towns in the U.S. and Canada. Another good list of ghost towns, most in the United States, some in Canada and a few links to those in the U.K.

©2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The Goldwell Open Air Museum is located just before Rhyolite, Nev., and features seven outdoor sculptures by Belgian artists. The biggest work is the “Last Supper” by Charles Albert Szukalski. (Jill Schensul/The Record/TNS)

Want To Go To Cuba? Here’s What You Need To Know

By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J)

Hmm. Book the Afro-Cubanismo Cuba Tour or the L’Chaim Cuba Tour? Book a room via AirBnB or a traditional hotel? Take one of the cruises around the island, the largest in the Caribbean, to hit more of the popular spots you’ve long heard about? Or book Carnival’s new volunteer-based cruise line – fathom – though you’ll have to wait until next May.

As little as a year ago, most Americans had few ways to travel to Cuba legally because of the economic embargo in place since the Eisenhower administration.

Today – since the most recent relaxations of travel rules announced by President Barack Obama in December, specifically – the gate is open for tourism to Cuba. It was a long-awaited event, it seems.

Tourism was up 36 percent between January, when the new rules went into effect, and May. Tour operators, travel agents and airlines had anticipated the pent-up demand and began tapping into the new Cuban buzz.

“My head is spinning at how fast things have moved in six months,” said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a nonprofit he founded in 1985. He has been involved with U.S. travel to Cuba and other aspects of bilateral relations since 1996.

McAuliff, who has organized and led more than 15 licensed groups to Cuba and visited the island more than 30 times, was the keynote speaker at the meeting of New Jersey-area travel agents during their recent Cuba Night in Kenilworth. Also on hand were several of the suppliers – cruise and tour operators – who are now offering trips to the country. Among them was the giant Caribbean tour company Apple Vacations.

The new rules have stirred enthusiasm. The crowds are coming, some just because Cuba’s on their bucket lists, others because they feel it’s urgent to get to Cuba now – before it becomes just another Caribbean resort oasis.

But the rules have also brought a wave of new questions about exactly who can visit, how, and what they will find when they get there.

The answers are important and show that while we are indeed beginning a new era of Cuban-U.S. relations, the experience for travelers will be no day at the beach.


Leisure travel – an actual day at the beach, say – is, in fact, still banned under the embargo. Right now, only U.S. travelers who fall into one of 12 approved categories can legally visit the country without a license in advance. These categories include educational and people-to-people connections: cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens. The categories were established during the Clinton administration; what has changed is that travelers only need a “general” rather than “special” license – the latter required potential visitors to submit license applications to the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees travel to Cuba. The applications for a special license had to be reviewed and approved case by case, and the process could take months. Only the people-to-people category was legal under the general license; now all 12 categories are.

Under a general license, travelers need only check a box on an Office of Foreign Assets Control form, noting what category they will travel on.

Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba can now bring back up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, $100 of which can be “tobacco products and alcohol combined.” Yes, that includes Cuban cigars. In the past, not only was it illegal for Americans to spend money in Cuba, but Cuban cigars were illegal in the United States altogether.

Travelers will be permitted to use their credit and debit cards.

You will be able to buy a plane ticket online, on your own – once airlines begin offering regular service. The booking process will include the Office of Foreign Assets Control form that asks what type of trip you are taking.


The general license applies to groups, not individuals. You still need to go through a licensed agent or tour operator.

The tour will offer a full-time schedule, and participants are required to adhere to it. The caveat in an Abercrombie & Kent brochure of Cuba programs is typical of all companies’ fine print: “Unlike other Abercrombie & Kent tours, participation in all activities on these itineraries is mandatory, and the program allows for little, if any, free time.”

The new regulations aren’t a license to loll. “Liberty Travel can’t sell a week on the beach at Varadero,” one of the legendary Cuban beach-resort areas, McAuliff noted. “You need to be going for a purpose.”

Despite Obama’s declaration, the restrictions on Cuba were enacted by Congress, and lawmakers would first have to lift the half-century-old trade embargo. Keep your eye on the news.


Though travelers from other parts of the world have been vacationing in Cuba for years, the tourism industry hasn’t kept pace. Cuba, after all, has not been a business-friendly kind of country. Travelers will find accommodations – not to mention everyday things such as hot water, plumbing and electricity, cell service and Internet speeds – have a long way to go.

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, recently met with Cuban hotel companies and says that given current building forecasts, it will take a decade for the supply of hotel rooms to meet demand.

Tour companies reserve blocks of rooms at the good hotels, including the Nacional and the Saratoga, far in advance, but it’s becoming harder to find availability as business increases. The Melia Havana, among the hotels up to U.S. standards in the capital, is booked through 2017, McAuliff said.

In addition, Internet service is slow at best, and unavailable in many areas; cellphones don’t work; calls from Cuba to the U.S. on land lines can be expensive; and while credit cards can now be used in Cuba, most businesses don’t accept them.


The travel industry – both the longtime players and the new so-called disrupters – are tapping into the surging demand, and either sidestepping the problems or becoming the solutions.

Tours: For many years, only a few companies, generally so-called Cuba specialists such as Insight Cuba, offered tours. Now tour operators big and small have added Cuban itineraries. Some have been operating people-to-people trips for several years, including Abercrombie & Kent, which began Cuba trips in 2013 and this year has a 13-day tour option along with its 10-day trip. It’s also offering a 23-day Cuba and South America private jet journey.

Others are just jumping in. One of the newcomers, Apple Vacations, a major player in the sand-and-sun-tour business, made headlines in June when it rolled out two Cuba programs; departures began in September.

People-to-people programs are still the most popular, but now all sorts of spins are being offered. Central Holidays’ Afro Cubanismo and L’Chaim Cuba themes are the most popular of all its Cuban offerings, said a representative of the New Jersey-based company.

Cigars, cars and architecture are also popular themes for trips, with tour participants’ meeting with Cubans who share their interests.

And even specialty companies such as Wilderness Travel and Natural Habitat Adventures have found relevant ways to include Cuba in their offerings, with themes relating to eco-tourism and local life in Cuba.

Lodging: Many Cubans rent out rooms in their homes to travelers. Such arrangements are called “casas particulares,” or private houses, and have become popular alternatives to hotels. For $30 you get a room, breakfast and a people-to-people experience.

And just entered the market in April with bookings available through travel agents who specialize in Cuba. Popper said Insight Cuba has started looking into such accommodations, “trying to find ideal places for groups and families. It’s not for everybody.” But, he added, especially in the context of people-to-people experiences, “it’s exactly what they want.”

Cruises: A few Cuban cruise options are up and running, but Carnival made the biggest waves with the recent announcement that it would begin seven-night people-to-people ship-based tours to Cuba from Miami through its new, socially based cruise line, fathom.

Ship-based travel to Cuba is proving to be a good way to see the country and avoid the substandard lodging, challenging roads and lack of ground transportation for tourists. McAuliff said he is starting to plan future tours via cruise ship.

CubaCruise, a Miami-based company, will offer its first sailing on Dec. 18. The weeklong cruise aboard the 1,200-passenger Celestyal will not only include people-to-people experiences at ports of call, but various Cuban performers, chefs and other locals will come aboard for forums and demonstrations.

Group IST (International Specialty Travel) is starting eight-day cruises on two new ships, with itineraries that include visits to cigar factories, a sea turtle breeding center, a hike in a national park, dance and music performances, and walking tours of historic towns.


For now, you’re limited to charter flights, but these are getting more convenient, too. Once limited to Miami departures, JetBlue began service from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Havana on July 3.

Scheduled service is expected within a year.

And five new ferry services between Miami and Cuba have also been approved by government officials and should be running by the end of the year.

After that, will the sky be the limit in Cuba? Stay tuned.


Travel to Cuba requires more planning than most trips, but Americans seem willing to make the effort. Here’s some information to get you started:


As far as official documents, you’ll need a passport that doesn’t expire for at least six months after your return from Cuba. You’ll also need a visa, which the tour you’re going with generally takes care of for you.

Cuba also requires that you buy medical insurance (from the Cuban government), which will cover the duration of your stay. Typically, tour prices include the insurance.

You’ll need cash, as well. The embargo has made Cuba a country that runs on it. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted nor are traveler’s checks. And forget ATMs.

Currency can be exchanged at the Jose Marti International Airport or at your hotel. Keep in mind that there is a 10 percent fee to exchange dollars for Cuban currency. There are two official currencies in Cuba; when you exchange dollars, you’ll receive Cuban convertible pesos, roughly equal to a U.S. dollar.

No special vaccinations or health warnings are connected with travel to Cuba, but don’t drink the water.


There’s a wide variety of organized trips to Cuba. They tend to cost more than trips to other Caribbean destinations, though the quality of amenities is below usual standards. The lack of a tourism infrastructure is, in fact, one reason prices are high: Demand for high-quality lodging far outpaces supply. Similarly, the lack of regularly scheduled air service from the U.S. means fares are higher, too.

The many American tour operators licensed by U.S. officials to offer people-to-people trips include: Grand Circle Foundation (, Insight Cuba (, Smithsonian Journeys (, National Geographic Expeditions (, Apple Vacations (, Globus (, Abercombie & Kent (, Central Holidays (, Wilderness Travel (, and Natural Habitat Adventures (


Carnival’s Cuba cruises start next May;

Globus will begin offering nine-night cruise tours to Cuba out of Miami in January, using a ship operated by Greece-based Celestyal Cruises. Travelers board in Havana after flying as a group from Miami;

Haimark Line, a luxury coastal cruise operator, will begin offering nine-night cruises out of Miami starting February on its 210-passenger Saint Laurent. They’re billed as people-to-people exchanges;

Group IST offers eight-night cruises on two ships, starting Dec. 19. Passengers fly from Miami for Havana or Cienfuegos, depending on which itinerary they choose;

MSC Cruises announced in the spring that beginning in December, its 2,120-guest MSC Opera will be based in Havana for the winter 2015-16 season. Its seven-night Caribbean itineraries will include two days in Havana;


So many tour companies. So many people-to-people programs. So many “authentic” experiences. And so much money compared with the usual island vacation. How do you choose?

First, know that most companies in the U.S. work with the same “receptivos” or state-run tour operators in Cuba, which arrange hotels, transportation, meals and cultural/people encounters and activities.

“Most of the itineraries are fairly similar since they must use the same three Cuban operators,” said Rick Ardis, president of Ardis Travel in East Rutherford, N.J.

Note the types of accommodations, modes of transportation and restaurants used for the tour. Be realistic about your threshold for roughing it.

Research how long and how much experience your tour operator has had in Cuba. Those that have been working in Cuba for several years may have built valuable relationships with local businesses and communities. “Cubans value relationships,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba.

Call the tour company to get a feel for its knowledge of Cuba and the specifics of its tours. “They should be well versed in handling questions,” Popper said. They should also be proactive in offering information – you shouldn’t have to ask for details.


For more information on the rules about travel to cuba:

A man walks in front of a mural of the Cuban flag in Holguin, Cuba September 20, 2015. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

From Globizen To Egotourist, New Terms In The World Of Travel

By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

In the spirit of school’s being back in session, I thought we might do a short learning exercise today. Vocabulary — tourism vocabulary. Not those perennially misused and misinterpreted bugaboos — nonstop versus direct flight, service charge versus gratuity, and just what is a force majeure?

We should probably do that sometime in the future and save everyone some heartburn and connecting flights. But today I’d like to catch up with neologisms that have made their way into the travel jargon. Some seem to have just emerged, others have been around a while, but they’re fun to think about. Most are portmanteau words, invented because they were needed to explain the latest trends and market segments (travelers with various things in common) that can be sold travel products.

So, we’ll get a little English lesson as well as a little insight into what’s trending these days.


Globizen: It’s not the much-courted millennial demographic, but those Gen Xers and Yers, 35-50, at the peak of their earning potential (attractive) — people who consider travel part of their lives, for business and pleasure (attractive). According to a recent column in Luxury Daily, a leading trade publication covering luxury marketing, globizens are demanding, have high expectations, get their travel recommendations from people who’ve been there or know other people who’ve been there — for months. They want to “experience” a place like a local — but a high-end local (upscale local apartments, for instance).

They also have an “incessant desire to share,” and because you cannot pry their fingers from their gadgets, they’ll be documenting their venturing (they want to “chart new territory, push themselves to the limit”) via, well, you know the litany …

“They are the most sophisticated and demanding group of travelers the industry has seen — far more than either baby boomers or millennials,” according to Luxury Daily columnist Tammy Smulders.

Are you one? If so, you probably aren’t reading this in a paper. Digital is everything.

Seekender: People who partake in spontaneous weekend travel to “enjoy new experiences.”

Ego-tourist: A term coined in the footsteps of eco-tourism, for people who like the ideology and social consciousness of treading lightly and meeting local people but only stay at five-star accommodations and take private transportation, meals etc., circumventing the everyday lives of those very locals they’ve come so far to understand.

List-ticker: Someone hellbent on doing the high-profile sites’ activities, mainly for the notch in the belt — to brag about it at home.

Mashup activities, updated goals, face-saving and downspending.

Drug tourism/highliday: Going somewhere for the purpose of partaking of drugs that may only be legal, available or socially acceptable at certain destinations. Thanks to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado (followed by some other locales), marijuana tourism is an actual category now.

Some of the new terms:

Weedery: There have been tours to some of the places where pot is grown, but now at least one ganjapreneur (another neologism), American Cannabis Partners, is envisioning a sophisticated spread with a variety of venues and entertainment as well as crops — the weedery is like a winery or brewery.

The first such development is a $35 million Colorado Cannabis Ranch & Amphitheater, complete with gift shop, concert space and a rooftop bar and restaurant, half an hour from Denver. Scheduled to open in 2016.

420-friendly: 420 being code for marijuana (it has something to do with the designated time a bunch of high school friends would meet and try to score some weed); there are now 420-friendly hotels, tours, restaurants, activities etc.

Fakeation: The unusual practice of staying at home but telling everyone you’re away. Some go so far as applying tanning lotions and getting their hair tiny-braided.

Fakelore: This is described as “manufactured folklore” or folklore that is inauthentic or not genuinely traditional. I would like to add a second definition: The inaccurate and sometimes factless spiels provided by very bad guides on some tours.

Honeyteer: A honeymoon spent on a volunteer trip.

Prison break: A holiday involving a stay in, yes, a former prison. For instance, Boston’s Liberty Hotel (a bit of irony, yes?) opened in 2007 in what once was the Charles Street Jail, which was built in 1851 and was rather innovative as far as lockups went at the time. Info:

Once a prison in a medieval castle in Oxford, England, the boutique hotel Malmaison is in the Castle Quarter, trendy and definitely the place to break out. Info:

Set-jetting: Tourism that revolves around traveling to movie sets and film locations.

Stereotrip: Traveling to a destination specifically to experience something stereotypical of that destination: drinking vodka in Ukraine and learning Cossack dances, for instance, or wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes in Scotland.

New horizons in how we think, act, and self-flagellate …

Downbragging: Bragging about how much you saved, or didn’t have to spend, on vacation. Done so that you don’t seem to be spending profligately during hard times.

Glocalization: Adapting global brands to local markets. Traveling to Spain and finding gazpacho in the local McDonald’s, for instance. Or Coke written in Hebrew on cans distributed in Israel.

(c)2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: rickz via Flickr

New Orleans, 10 Years After Katrina

By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

NEW ORLEANS–On Aug. 29, it will have been a decade.

A decade since Katrina hit New Orleans.

Ten years have passed. Although it seems much longer.

And no time at all. The waters have receded. The refrigerators and their fetid contents have been carted away. The dead have been buried.

The mold has been conquered. For the most part. New Orleans is back. Better than ever.

But Katrina is still a presence here. The one watermark that cannot be scrubbed away. The line that divides New Orleans into pre- and post-hurricane. Post-Katrina is different. For the locals. For the visitors, too.
It’s better. But it’s not the same. It is cleaned up. Buffed down. Innovation. And tradition. Washboards. And nose rings.

New entrepreneurs.

Old magic.

In short, it is still, and always, New Orleans.

As the anniversary approaches, New Orleans is preparing its commemorations–not celebrations, the usual mode for a New Orleans event. It’s a time when the city will “reflect on the loss and celebrate the progress made, as well honor those around the world who have helped our region recover,” as Mayor Mitch Landrieu explains on the special website created for the occasion, Katrina10 .org (K10 for short).

The New Orleans you visit today is a testament to resilience, and the human spirit. From the images following in the wake of Katrina, it seemed almost impossible the place could ever be put back together.

That it has come back, with a new vision for development, revitalized neighborhoods, new attractions and infrastructure for both visitors and locals _ not to mention a new wave of residents who’ve moved in from other places _ is kind of amazing. Forbes magazine called the New Orleans comeback “the greatest turnaround of our lifetime.” Nowadays New Orleans turns up not just onTop 10 cities for music and food, but ranks as the No. 2 boomtown in America, according to Bloomberg. And it topped Forbes lists of “Best Places for Entrepreneurs” and “America’s Biggest Brain Magnets” _ for attracting people under 25 with college degrees.

It’s not all uplifting. The city’s population hasn’t rebounded from the pre-Katrina numbers–it’s more than 100,000 lower than in 2000 and crime is still a problem. New Orleans has one of the highest murder rates in the country.

But people still fall in love with New Orleans, and can rarely explain why. A musician I spoke with gave me his observation: Just like the gumbos and the jazz that were born here, the key to New Orleans’ allure, and joy, and, well, call it a spell, is the abundance of ingredients _ of influences _ that go into it: Every one contributing to the final presentation.

On a recent trip, I discovered some of the ways the recipe’s been revised in post-Katrina New Orleans. Here’s just a taste of what you’ll find.

At 9:30 on a Monday morning in March, I am heading toward the Hyatt Regency, which became a symbol of the destruction as Katrina battered the city on Aug. 29, 2005. Winds blew out every window and tore out walls, leaving guest rooms and beds exposed to the rampaging elements. The images of the hotel were some of the first to hit the wires, and provide an inkling of the scope of what, in the end, turned out to be the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history, according to FEMA, and the total estimated damage of $108 billion made it the most costly hurricane in history, as well.

The Hyatt reopened in 2011, after a $275 million renovation. I haven’t seen the rebuilt hotel yet, and, as I get near the address on Loyola Street, it seems I might not get the chance today, either. I’m close, but thwarted by barricades and traffic police and, a parade. Traffic is stopped as a long, seemingly endless stream of marching bands and cheerleaders proceed down Loyola Street.

They’re elementary scholars, little kids with big brass instruments, some barely visible beneath their battered tubas, cheerleaders knobby kneed and smiling expertly as they shiver their pompoms. Parents and friends have taken over the neutral ground (median dividers), handing out juice and water and snapping pictures.

Parades, I remembered, are standard New Orleans fare. They can happen anytime, anywhere.

What is new is all the roadwork and infrastructure construction in the city–more than $1.63 billion is being invested in this area of post-Katrina New Orleans _ and you can’t always follow your GPS’ directions, so be prepared to wing it.

Anyway, after many right-turns, I parked and, after a brief, marching-paced merge with the schoolkids, I proceeded through the new entrance to the Hyatt, which faces the newly constructed Loyola Streetcar line, which connects to the French Quarter.

Michael Smith is the general manager of the Hyatt. He was the general manager when Katrina made landfall. Today he sits in a big, quiet office, in a building with all its walls intact. Not a bed can be seen from the outside.

“In those first weeks, it was hard to believe you were even in the USA,” said Smith, who has worked at Hyatts around the world for 37 years. Thinking about Aug. 29 and the five days that followed before help really began to arrive, causes him to shudder.

But, like most of the residents of this city today, people are looking to the future rather than dwell on the past.

The silver lining of Katrina was that it left “a chance to do a redo,” Smith said. “You had a chance to take New Orleans as she was and reinvent her.

“And I think we’ve taken advantage of that opportunity.” He cited some of the many new features and improvements in the city–a revamped school system producing higher testing scores, a $4 billion medical district, a new airport, and a restaurant scene that’s grown from 857 pre-Katrina to 1,400-plus today.

The city is being redeveloped with much forethought and input. It’s the most planned city in the country, in fact. Neighborhoods once left for dying or dead have been revived–more like reinvented. Hot spots today are in neighborhoods many visitors would never have known existed pre-Katrina–including Central City, Freret and the Treme.

More than $1.6 billion has been invested in long-term neighborhood revitalization projects. In some cases, neighborhoods that were down and out even before the storm have become the hottest hoods in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Just downriver (east) from the French Quarter are two of the city’s most distinct enclaves: the Faubourg Marigny, one of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods, and Bywater. Here you’ll find historic New Orleans shotgun shacks and Creole cottages, small boutiques, art galleries, ethnically diverse restaurants and a bohemian, offbeat spirit. The St. Claude Arts District, centered around St. Claude Avenue, is within the Bywater neighborhood and has grown to more than 30 galleries and venues for visual and performance art.

Many consider the Treme (, the cultural heart of New Orleans. Because it was one of the few neighborhoods that didn’t see much flooding–not to mention its starring role in the HBO series–the neighborhood is being rediscovered, and experiencing a renaissance of new businesses, renovated homes and young families moving in. The Treme is one of the oldest black-American and free-people-of-color neighborhoods in the country. The 32-acre Louis Armstrong Park is the neighborhood’s dominant landmark; within is Congo Square where everyone gathered throughout the 18th and 19th centuries on Sundays to drum, dance and trade.

It’s also where the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival actually started and was held until it became so popular it had to be relocated to the fairgrounds. More recently, a Jazz in the Park concert series is attracting new visitors to the park for free shows every Thursday night.

Speaking of music … It’s after 10 and the music is cranking, the riffs rolling out of the open club doors like steam from a pot of boiling crawfish. Inside, the barstools are all taken, the dance floor moves getting friendlier, the beers flowing even faster than the sweat.

A typical night on Bourbon Street?

No. This is Frenchmen Street, the post-Katrina hot spot for the “real” New Orleans music scene.

OK, it’s not new, and the music is probably just as real back on Bourbon. But it’s the music hot spot of the moment, a 10-minute walk and a lot more civilized than the Bourbon Street scene.
Frenchmen Street is in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, once a plantation owned by Bernard de Marigny, a political leader in early New Orleans and apparently the embodiment of his Creole heritage’s joie de vivre spirit. As Bourbon Street became more unwieldy and crowded with out-of-towners, Frenchmen emerged as a spot for locals to party.

The street is on some of the highest ground in the city, and escaped Katrina with little incident. Post-Katrina, it was officially designated a city arts and entertainment district, which provided some business incentives. The final jewels in the popularity crown were its discovery by the legions of volunteers who came to help out in the wake of the disaster and it’s appearance on “Treme.” Word was out.

The action is between the 400 and 600 blocks, and the range of styles–the music, and the clubs themselves are so varied that you’ll probably feel at home at least somewhere–if not everywhere.

It might be at Snug Harbor, on a Monday night, when Charmaine Neville clenches her fists and throws her head back and happily yowls the chorus of a tune of a woman’s revenge. Or at the Spotted Cat, where Chaz Leary hitches up his washboard and gets lost in a three-minute solo making sounds. Or at Cafe Negril, where a young woman with heavy eyeliner and matching voice is moving in time with the mesmerizing rhythm of the rhythm and blues. A gray-haired man with a whiskered face shuffles, around the dance floor, by himself. But not alone.

There are new tours in New Orleans, to see all the new neighborhoods. There is one tour that has been around since not long after Katrina: The Katrina Tour.

I cringed when I first heard about it. Seemed a bit … ghoulish. After 10 years, though, it seemed this might be a good way to get an overview of Katrina 10 years on.

So I went.

The three-hour tour promised we would “Travel thru neighborhoods destroyed by the natural disaster … Drive past an actual levee that ‘breached’ and see the resulting devastation that displaced hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents.”

The tour did take us to places and sights I had never been to. I saw aspects of post-Katrina New Orleans that I needed to see. Places that are still struggling, despite the new New Orleans boomtown status.

The Lower Ninth Ward, for instance. Hardest hit by the storm, it’s where the levee system failed. After a decade, life is still in limbo, recovery stalled and the community’s needs ignored.

This is the area of the city musician George Porter Jr. mentioned when I’d asked him about the state of New Orleans, post-Katrina. I’d heard so many optimistic observations about the city, Porter’s utter cynicism was a surprise.

The tour gave me a glimpse into the foundation of his attitude, inequities that, once witnessed, can’t be photo-shopped to something prettier in your mind. More than nine years later, few businesses have reopened, only one of seven public schools has been rebuilt, and only 34 percent of the population has returned. The sections of the neighborhood most affected by the Industrial Canal levee breach are still either seriously damaged or simply empty lots where rows of houses once stood.

We passed the new development built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. Brand new futuristic houses designed by top architects, with LEED-certified sustainable technology. The houses line the neat streets, the bright white sidewalks. People, mostly elderly, have moved in here. But not a soul is in the street. The houses came, but the community didn’t follow, not a store, not a fast food place. Just very cool looking houses. And, the cutting edge, environmentally friendly wood used in the building is rotting. Pitt’s foundation is suing.

We are rolling.

This is the problem with a bus tour. The subject, the sights, the issues, are completely wrong for a drive-by. Even slowing down, even stopping momentarily, looking out a window, felt inappropriate–more than that, it was disrespectful. A sightseeing tour of a city’s social ills? I walked away feeling slightly ashamed.

Still, the images remain. The situations, the lives and the hopes and the needs exist today, 10 years later.

Michael Smith at the Hyatt knows the situation in the Ninth Ward. It’s one reason he is a bit reticent about the 10-year commemoration.

“We are better off than we were,” he said, “but we have soooo much work to do.” He rattled off the social ills, the things that bother him.

“Brad Pitt still building those houses. People still haven’t got lights in some places. There’s a 53 percent unemployment rate among African-American males–in a city where the overall average is 5 percent. And we still have the same elements of crime,” he added.

“This (anniversary) should be a tipping off point, in my opinion. The time to say, ‘OK, now we’ve gotten here, how do we get to the next milestone? Let’s go there. Let’s come up with a logical path.'”

Photo by Steven Guzzardi via Flickr