Tag: Cycling Tour

In 1995 I read about a trail that crosses British Columbia along former rail lines that weave through spectacular scenery including the Okanagan-Similkameen region. The railways through BC are comprised of five subdivisions that make their way across 500km of mountains and valleys from the Kootenays to the west coast. Built in an age when all freight and passenger movement was mainly by rail, by 1973 the trains had stopped running and in 1978 the tracks were removed. Finally, in 1990, the National Transportation Agency authorized the abandonment of the remaining tracks.

In the book ‘Cycling the Kettle Valley’, Dan Langford wrote that one could bike from Castlegar to Hope (over 700km) along these abandoned railway lines and that it would be a historical journey. I was single, care-free and decided to make my way by bus with my bike from Vancouver to Midway, the starting point of the Kettle Valley section of trail. The bus dropped me off at 4:30 am so I made my way to the Kettle River, pitched my tent and went back to sleep. I was pretty fit in those days and liked nothing more than a challenge so I traveled light with panniers to carry a small tent, sleeping back, cookstove and limited food. On the first day I planned to cycle to Beaverdell and then to Hydraulic Lake where I could re-supply at McCulloch Lake Lodge. It was April and quite chilly, but I was prepared or at least thought I was. After cycling 70km (and loving it), I arrived to Beaverdell and purchased a few things at the spartan General Store and explored what remained of this once bustling village including the Beaverdell Hotel, BC’s oldest. I then continued towards Hydraulic Lake and the McCulloch Lake Lodge, some 50km further. I arrived late afternoon quite tired and found the lodge to be closed so I kept riding, with my goal of reaching Chute Lake Lodge, another 50 km away. I rode across Myra Canyon’s timber trestles, which were quite spectacular – there was no-one else on the bridges or in the canyon so I had the surreal experience of enjoying the serenity of magnificent scenery alone.

Part of the appeal of this journey was the remoteness of this route, but it also meant there were very few opportunities to find food. Fortunately, there are lots of rivers and lakes so water wasn’t an issue. By about the 140km mark, I was quite tired, and it was dark so I camped along the trail. At 6 am, not being able to sleep (it was cold and I was hungry), I continued on by bike to Chute Lake, fortunately finding the historic lodge open, and the owner, Doreen, inside with the fire roaring. It was 8:30 am and although the door was open, she wouldn’t let me order food nor enter until 9am, so I sat outside in the cold morning air and waited with anticipation for breakfast. When breakfast was served, I devoured it and basked in the warmth and comfort from my table overlooking the lake. I continued on to Naramata through rolling vineyards, then through Kelowna which is one of the cities that the route passes. After a big lunch, I climbed up to Summerland, with its beautiful orchards and lakeside setting. It was here that I realized this trail would likely become very popular, as it really offered a great way to see this part of BC. But west of Summerland I ran into a problem. I arrived at a river crossing to discover that the steel bridge described in the book was gone. I tried several times to cross the river, but with the falling snow and freezing water it was too risky to attempt alone. I reluctantly turned around and cycled back to Summerland and boarded a bus back to Vancouver. I contacted CP Rail to enquire about the missing bridge. I was dismayed to learn that they had removed that bridge and 2 others, and that plans were in place to remove many more. The reasoning was that the BC government had only purchased the rights-of-way, but not the bridges, (something to do with liability), so they were intending on taking out steel bridges all along the route.

I decided to use my skills as an event organizer to raise awareness of the Kettle Valley trail and the bridge issue. I approached Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) to let them know I was organizing a Kettle Valley Railway ride. MEC allowed me to set up a table in the lobby of the store and within 2 weeks, I had 26 people signed up to ride the KVR from Midway to Hope. I also called the Vancouver Sun and Dawn Hannah wrote a full-page article titled ‘Disappearing Bridges’. This generated additional press and CP Rail agreed to not remove any other bridges. By that time we had already pressed ahead with the planning of the bike trip. I explained to the participants that we would have a little beer and wine bar each night and the proceeds would go towards purchasing lumber and materials for a bridge repair project that I had in mind in the Tulameen section of the trail. I joked that the more they drank, the better the bridge would be. Our group included an eclectic group of mostly BC residents that included Leon Lebrun, the then president of Trails BC. During the trip, we succeeded in building a small bridge but realized for future events we would be better to donate to local rails-to-trails groups and let them build bridges and do maintenance.

The next year, we approached the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC and donated through their organization. For several years, we advertised a cycling event along the KVR, but never had more than 20-25 people register so we decided to offer multiple small-group trips through the summer and offer it as a regular tour along with our other trips. It became a popular trip for us but finding guides to lead this trip was tough; most guides preferred much easier trips where they got to stay in nice hotels and not have to do any cooking. But we had some hardy guides including Phil Rueben, who loved the history and route, and he and I lead countless trips together in the early years. In 2003, fires destroyed the Myra Canyon trestles and while they were being rebuilt, the number of people cycling this route declined significantly. We continued to run a few trips, finding a detour around the trestles, but even when completed (at a cost of $13 million) the Kettle Valley never really fully regained its popularity.

Despite the drop in client numbers, we continued to offer trips along what we called ‘Stage 1’: Castlegar to Beaverdell; ‘Stage 2’: Beaverdell to Princeton and ‘Stage 3’: Princeton to Hope.

In 2004, I invited a friend named Monika to do the Stage 1 trip with us – cycling from Castlegar to Beaverdell. Monika had lead cycling trips in Europe and around the world for years and afterward announced that cycling this route was one of her favourite trips – perhaps because her and I became a couple (and still are today). We had two children in 2005 and 2007, and although we ran trips as a company in the interim, I myself did not go back to lead a trip along the KVR until 2018. I wanted to return to see the current trail conditions and to decide if we should continue offering it.

On the 2018 trip, we had 8 people sign up. I loved the experience of cycling this route again and camping and cooking and all that goes with this. The riding itself was better than I imagined – the trail was soft in places but overall I thought it was great. I GPS’d the route and added POI’s (points of interest) and found a few other ways to improve the trip and I vowed to return the next year and to bring Monika and the kids (now 12&14).

So we did. In the summer of 2019 we set off with 12 people on Stage 2 from Beaverdell to Princeton. Our group included travellers from Australia, the US and across BC. I convinced a musician and BC native named Patrick Spencer to co-guide with me and having him sing and play around the campfire each night made the trip really special. Our children loved it, despite being the only children on the trip. We met fascinating people on the trail including a father and 6 year old daughter who had biked from Victoria and were riding all the way to Alberta. What an adventure! We also met a bike packer who had just completed racing 1040 km from Merritt to Fernie and was riding back to Vancouver afterwards.

One of the great things about people who sign-up for a guided trip like this is that they are often happy to go outside of their comfort zone. While there is some roughing-it involved, we provide enough support to make it a more comfortable experience. When our trip finished in Princeton, another group arrived to ride the Princeton to Hope section. My wife and kids headed back to Vancouver and Patrick and I (and two fresh guides) supported the final stage. We biked to Coalmont and down the Tulameen Valley, passing over the location of the bridge project we built back in 1996 (full disclosure – the bridge washed away in the interim). It brought back memories of that first trip and of the hundreds of people we had introduced the trail to. For the majority, the appeal of riding along the Trans-Canada trail was remarkable. I have done this trip now dozens of times and will likely continue to ride it annually. It really is a very special experience and for cyclists who are up for the adventure, one you should definitely have on your bucket list.

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations
April 2020

To register
Great Explorations operates:
*’Stage 1′: Castlegar to Beaverdell;
*’Stage 2′: Beaverdell to Princeton and
*’Stage 3′: Princeton to Hope.

Video here (July 2019)

I first visited Vietnam in 2003 as part of a 3-month, 5000 km cycling adventure, some of which wasn’t entirely enjoyable. I brought along a copy of Lonely Planet’s ‘Cycling Vietnam’ which suggested that the ride to do was from Hanoi to Saigon, along Highway 1. I can definitely attest to the fact that this route is not suitable for cycling due to the constant trucks with loud horns that use the highway. The good news is that there are lots of amazing cycling routes in this country, but they aren’t in Lonely Planet or any other guidebook I could find. I found many of the best routes through our local guide who knows the myriad of tiny paved roads and paths that zig-zag through the countryside that make the cycling truly enjoyable. I call him the ‘Professor’ because of his immense knowledge of the history and culture of Vietnam, of which there is a lot.

When we initially designed the trip, I knew that we had to include the cities of Hanoi, and two nights in each of the Imperial City of Hue, Hoi An (Vietnam’s most charming town), Nha Trang (for its beaches and Ana Mandara Hotel) and Dalat (for its history and cool temperatures and the variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown here). For those that want to extend their trip, we offer two day extensions to each of Halong Bay, Mui Ne, Saigon and Angkor Wat (Cambodia) so travellers have the option to do more cycling while seeing more of Vietnam and Cambodia.

I have returned to Vietnam several times since 2003, my last trip taking place in February 2020.

The good news is that Vietnam is actually more appealing than ever, and here is why: there are more and more e-mopeds and e-bikes on the streets of Hanoi so it’s still chaotic to cross the street, but quieter. There have been lots of additional roads paved out in the countryside so the surfaces are better, but still very little traffic on the roads we cycle. Finally, there are new restaurants, some of which are of international standard, providing more variety.

I arrived in Hanoi on February 1, just after the Tet holiday of 2020. This is an interesting time to visit because it is relatively quiet and homes and villages are still decorated for the holiday. As you walk through Hanoi there are reminders of the French occupation in the architecture, bakeries and cafés. The group met up at 4 pm in the lobby of our 5-star hotel, The Hotel Metropole, for a bicycle rickshaw tour of the historic district. After the tour, we walked to dinner at Quan An Ngon for authentic Vietnamese cuisine. The owner of this restaurant recruited some of the top street-food vendors to cook their signature dishes in the courtyard of an old villa… Most of the group had returned earlier in the day from the Halong Bay Extension, which I would highly recommend as it gives you two days to acclimatize while cruising through the 5,000 limestone islands that make up Halong Bay.

On Day 2 of our trip, a short flight whisked us to the Imperial City of Hue, where our bikes were waiting just a few km from the airport. My wife, who had never been to Vietnam, was fascinated by the sights of  temples and rice paddies and an abundance of cultural sites. We cycled just 30 km on almost completely flat terrain through to the Citadel of Hue. Here, our guide took us through the Imperial City, explaining how the Nyguyen dynasty (1802-1945) lived inside the Forbidden Purple City with eunuchs and concubines. After our tour, we transferred the short distance to our hotel, the exquisite 5-star Pilgrimage Village Resort, with its Olympic size swimming pool and well-tended gardens. We met at the bar prior to dinner for an in depth history/cultural talk, where our guide gave us a thorough introduction to the history of Vietnam.

Next day, we cycled from the Imperial City through more scenic countryside ending at the home of a princess related to the Nguyen dynasty. The guests were quick to realize that on this trip, there was so much to see along the way. After our visit, we walked to the aptly named Perfume River, where a dragon boat awaited and we cruised upstream while enjoying lunch. This was a very peaceful and enjoyable way to see the countryside and after disembarking, we visited the tomb of an emperor. Afterwards, most in the group elected to zip back to the hotel (that swimming pool beckoned) but some of us did the extra ride which was a rolling and scenic 15 km spin back to the hotel.

Day 4, we biked about 50 km, again quite flat and gently rolling. We got our first views of the coast here and cycling through small villages with waving children yelling ‘hello’ was quite a sensation. After lunch, everyone had the option of cycling up and over Hai Van pass, which took those of us on bikes about 1 hour followed by an exhilarating descent towards Danang but again, most opted to shuttle straight to Hoi An where another lovely resort hotel and pool awaited. Hoi An is Vietnam’s most charming village, filled with lanterns, and lots of artisanal shops and great restaurants. We went for a walking tour of town followed by a visit to a tailor that makes ‘made to measure’ suits and outfits in less than 24 hours at bargain prices.

We took part in a cooking course for dinner and our instructor was absolutely charming. We do cooking courses on many of our trips in Europe, but I must say this one is in a class of its own. On our second day in Hoi An, we cycled from the hotel out through the gardens of the city and met an old man who was in his 90’s and had farmed here his whole life. Back in town, everyone took the opportunity to walk the streets of Hoi An. Some took advantage of the spa and massage services on offer (for as little as $13/hour), and then for our OYO (on your own) dinner, some of us went to a new Japanese fusion restaurant called Tadioto which was superb.

On Day 6, we flew from Danang to Nha Trang, a bustling city on the sea that boasts my personal favourite hotel – the outstanding Ana Mandara hotel located right on the beach with two swimming pools, swish spa and more. We arrived to lunch at the hotel’s restaurant and then some in the group cycled along the coast – on this day we encountered lots of local cyclists on race bikes which was fun to see. On every trip (even our luxurious ones) we try to have at least one local night out and our guide took us to his favourite Vietnamese BBQ restaurant. It was a night to remember and for some in the group, a favourite meal. Next day, we cycled out through the countryside and then returned to the hotel for time to walk the beach or relax. In the evening, we had dinner at the hotel’s beachside restaurant where a dozen staff served a delicious feast of sea-food and other specialties of the region. At meals like this, we dine family-style which is fun and everyone loves the variety of cuisine on offer.

From Nha Trang, we rode inland on Day 8 towards Dalat and the temperature dropped a few degrees as we gained elevation. After lunch, we got back into the vehicles and climbed higher and higher. Closer to Dalat, some of us got out to ride mostly downhill towards town. I love this day as the riding is quiet and the scenery is spectacular. In Dalat, we stay at the 5-star Dalat Palace, a historic property that recently added a new wing for those that prefer modern décor and updated rooms. I personally love the historic rooms in the original hotel, with hardwood floors, clawfoot tubs, high ceilings etc. We dine out on this evening at one of the hundreds of local eateries in town.

On Day 9, we cycled from the hotel out through the countryside descending almost 1,000 m, stopping to taste coffee and to visit a silk factory. Back in Dalat, we toured the local markets and people shopped for souvenirs. As this was our final night of the regular trip, we met at the piano bar for a reception and then moved to dinner in the formal dining room overlooking the lake. It was a festive finish to a great trip. The following morning some of our group departed for Saigon by flight but many continued on with our Extension to Mui Ne (two more splendid days of cycling). Everyone who did the Mui Ne Extension really enjoyed it as the cycling was superb and two more days at a beach village added nicely to the trip. The Saigon Extension followed this with one more day of cycling along the coast towards Saigon, followed by a ½ day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. We had lunch at L’Usine, a cool and hip restaurant above a gallery and then in the evening, dined at Xu, a fantastic restaurant just steps from our hotel. These two restaurants would attract a following in places like NY or San Francisco. Saigon is a fascinating city, much different from Hanoi. The next morning, some flew on to Angkor Wat for two final days of temple touring. After two weeks of glorious cycling, vibrant culture, outstanding food and great company, we returned home. I am already looking forward to returning.

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations
February 2020

If you go
Great Explorations operates cycling trips in Vietnam in December, January, February and March. The trip itself is 10 days/9 nights with 7 days of cycling; US$ 3,650 pp. Bike Rental: US$ 280. For an additional 3 days of cycling, book the Mui Ne (US$ 695 pp) and Saigon (US$ 695 pp) Extensions. Halong Bay is also amazing, especially by cruise and Angkor Wat also deserves at least two days.

Video here

What inspired your first (long distance) cycling trip?
After graduating from university (and a French immersion program), I decided to take a year off, took my bike to Europe and cycled for 6 months. I was inspired by seeing photos of Europe and thought that seeing it by bike would be amazing. It was.

Where was it?
On that first trip it was mostly through France which absolutely astounded me.

How did you end up as a cycling tour guide?
On that first cycling trip I met another traveler in France who was a bicycle guide for a tour operator and so applied, got hired and the rest is history.

What is the best thing about guiding trips around the world?
For me, travelling (especially by bike) is like an awakening of the senses which gives me new perspectives and insights into the region I am travelling in. The best thing is often the people one meets, including those we as guides get to travel with and also the locals – whether they be people we are meeting for the first time, or locals we have come to know through travels.

What is the most challenging thing about guiding trips?
Guides usually have many roles: logistics coordinator, bike mechanic, sage, teacher, psychologist, sometimes chef. It’s the most challenging (but most rewarding) occupation I can imagine.

What has been one of the most memorable trips you have had?
I designed and co-guided our first trip to Japan this spring. It was one of the most memorable because of the scenery, food, culture and was so very different from anywhere else in the world I have biked. I can’t wait to go back.

Where was the most surprising place you have visited?
Morocco would have to be on the list. It feels like an Indiana Jones movie sometimes. It has to be one of the most exotic places on earth.

If you could only return to one country to cycle, where would it be?
France is one country that has fabulous cycling and so much variety and everything else that we look for in a great trip. I lived in Provence with my family for 6 months and return almost every year to travel and ride. [I’m returning in March, 2020 with my wife and children (ages 12&14) and this trip is open to other families. Anyone out there with kids who like to ride?]

What has been your least enjoyable destination for biking and why?
When I first cycled in SE Asia, I used the Lonely Planet guidebook called ‘Cycling Vietnam’ which recommended the ride from Hanoi to Saigon all on the main highway that traverses the country. I did this route and found it noisy, dangerous and not enjoyable in any way. The good news is there is, in fact, great cycling in Vietnam but it isn’t on Highway 1. We took the time to find safe, scenic and enjoyable routes that make much more sense to do.

What do you love about cycling?
I like physical exercise and biking is easy on the joints etc. I also love the adrenaline rush and sheer joy of experiencing the speed that two legs and a simple machine can produce. Plus when you meet people in a foreign land on a bicycle, you are usually welcomed warmly. I also love that biking is good for the planet. If we could get people out of vehicles more and onto bikes, we would be all better off.

What keeps you inspired to keep guiding and running worldwide trips?
I have found that inspiring people to cycle and travel gives me great joy and is fulfilling. Having guided trips for 37+ years, I feel I have some wisdom, experiences and stories I can share that will help others.

If you weren’t a cycling tour guide/operator what do you think you would be?
I truly can’t imagine doing anything else.

Interview with founder Robbin McKinney on October 31, 2019.

Vancouverites, want to know more? Come and join us at our Slideshow on Nov 13th!

As many of you know, we have been organizing the annual Sunshine Coast Mountain Bike Trail Challenge, combining our love of BC trails, biking in some of the incredible nature we have right at our doorstep (across the bay), an opportunity to meet and catch up with our fellow mountain biking community and just a weekend to be outdoors, camping and of course, the delicious BBQ and live music enjoyed with a beverage of choice in hand.

We can’t quite believe that it has been nineteen years since our first Sunshine Coast Trail weekend. We have loved each and every year, got to meet new people – some briefly, some have returned again and again.

It can be hard to end something that you love and enjoy hosting so much, but also it seems fitting to acknowledge the almost two wonderful decades we have had with this event – and to honour it by going out with a bang and making it the best year yet.

The inspiration for this event, way back when, was to highlight and encourage bikers to ride the amazing trails on the Sunshine Coast and to raise awareness to the value of these trails. With this in mind we wanted a weekend that would have a point to point ride and add some festivities, fun and a chance to actually catch up and get to know our fellow riders.

This amazing trail network that we have for our biking pleasure is thanks to the hard-working trail builders and maintenance volunteers, events such as these and all of the riders who come out to participate and support (our Sunshine Coast Trail Challenge has donated over $5,000 dollars to trail building on the Sunshine Coast.) and also increased awareness and use of what we have available to us really helps the biking community, the Sunshine Coast community and benefits the future generation of mountain bikers (we have had riders from the age of 9 at our Sunshine Coast event – and some young, aspiring riders joining us this year!)

As well as our riders we have an amazing team of volunteers who come along to ensure that you have to do is enjoy the ride!

The delicious food, the encouraging and well-stocked rest stops on route and all the other behind-the-scenes are a huge part thanks to the busy team of volunteers who know that they are going to be around a fun and passionate group of people and we love that!

We have a particularly environmentally conscious team this year and are working on doing our very best to make this year our most eco-conscious yet. As cyclists, we already know that we reduce our carbon footprint the more we choose biking over other forms of transport.

We will be working towards efficient and proper recycling and we ask all of our attendees to bring a plate, cup, cutlery and anything else that you will need for eating at mealtimes.

This is what is at the heart of events like these, and ultimately at the heart of why we do what we do – firstly; we love to ride. We love any opportunity to get out on the road/trails with like-minded folk.

With that we value and respect nature, our environment and ensuring that we are giving back to it as much as we are getting from it.

The community; as a cycling tour company which has been providing trips and tours all over Canada and the world for over 35 years, we know the importance of community.  Whether it be the people you bike with or the advice and tips you get from friends or strangers all over the world. We love to meet new people, hear stories of cycling adventures and maybe even make some new friends to hit the trail/road with.

This is why we do what we do, this is why we have run the Sunshine Coast Trail Challenge for 19 years and we could not be more grateful to all of you who have supported, encouraged and shared your wonderful feedback (and company) with us.

We are very proud and happy to be able to offer something special like this weekend with you all and although we are sad to let it come to an end, we know that there are new and exciting things to come.

We really hope you can come and be part of our final installment of The Sunshine Coast Challenge, if not we want to say a big THANK YOU from all the Great Explorations team.

I was intrigued when I read that the writer Pico Iyer had made Japan his home. Pico is a discerning travel writer and his descriptions of his adopted country make anyone desperate to visit, if not live. A colleague suggested that the Noto Peninsula offered just the right mix of rural countryside, beautiful sea-side vistas, an astounding number of cultural attractions, charming ryokans, great restaurants and more. But how would it be to bike, I asked? At this question, his eyes sparkled and he grinned widely, exclaiming: the biking is some of the best in the world on the quietest roads imaginable.

We put together an itinerary that included a mix of inland and coastal riding, visiting and staying in the towns of Wajima, Suzu Beach, Wakura Onsen, Kanazawa and Yamanaka. We designed the trip around where the best riding is including regions of the interior that are exquisite and this is where the traditional rural villages and quietest roads are. One of the great appeals of this region is the opportunity to stay in charming and luxurious ryokans that are unlike any hotel I have stayed at before. Omotenashi is Japanese hospitality and until you have experienced it first-hand, when staff make you feel an honoured guest, you really can’t imagine. Many of the ryokans have hot springs (onsens) that you can enjoy and provide traditional yukata to wear to the spa (and dinner when dining in!). Did we mention the food? In a word, extraordinary. We mix traditional Japanese meals with French and Italian-fusion restaurants including Ben Flatt’s outstanding restaurant along the coast south of Suzu for a lunch you will never forget. To hear Ben describe his philosophy to food and cooking and why he chose to live in this region of Japan will have you understand its appeal.

Because I have been leading trips for some 35+ years, people often ask what is my favourite trip? My new answer is – Japan – and the Noto Peninsula.

Best time to go? May is ideal. On our May 10-17 trip, the cherry blossoms were still in bloom; rice was being planted and the weather was perfect averaging a balmy 23-26C. We will be offering trips in April, May, and October.

What bikes do we use? We purchased a brand new fleet of Cannondale Quick model hybrid bikes for this trip.

Do we operate the trip? Great Explorations operates our own trips – no ‘middle man mark-up’ which is why our prices offer outstanding value.

Client Reviews?  Here is a comment from a guest from our first trip (May 2019):

Food, biking, cultural events, Ryokan service, onsens were all amazing. For me, rural Japan shows the essence of Japanese culture, that people find something to be passionate about, whether serving tea, preparing food, making paper, or greeting you at a Ryokan. Then they work hard on details to produce something special. And, undoubtably, the result is amazing. Such passion and effort is something we can all learn from. All accommodation was great. Especially loved the quaint seaside location, food and service of the Lamp Ryokan. The final Ryokan had the most amazing service as the staff appeared wherever we were to make sure all went well – the grandfather made a surprise visit at the train station to make sure we got on the right train. Food was also great. The meals provided an opportunity to understand that no matter what kind of food Japan serves, it is amazing. Loved all meals. Loved all events! Maybe the Sake one was a highlight, with the adorable, spunky sake master. The rides were challenging but manageable. I was worried that I was going to “die” each day, but was relieved that the most difficult days were the first 2, and that I could relax(somewhat) for the rest of the trip. Snacks were superb – great mix of salty, sweet, unusual and interesting Japanese fruit, cookies, crackers, powerbars, candy and chocolate. These were the best snacks on a bike trip.” Deborah H. from Toronto, ON.

Want to know more? We offer both Luxe and Classic trips. The itineraries both start from the Noto airport (we include flights from Tokyo). The Luxe trip finishes in Yamanaka and the Classic trip finishes in Kanazawa.

Need inspiration? Stay tuned, video coming soon! The trailer video is now online on both itinerary pages.

 

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations

“No one can predict what will happen in Cuba in the coming years, which is why you must rush there now. As in, right now.” Reif Larsen, NY Times – Havana’s Symphony of Sound

I had always put off going to Cuba, as I wasn’t interested in sitting in Veradero at an all-inclusive resort. I wanted to bike through the country, but stories of pot-holed roads, poor accommodation and bad food put me off. The good news is, things are changing, quickly.

Going to Cuba is still definitely a step back in time. As soon as you arrive to Havana and see the vintage cars driving around (there are at least 700 in Havana alone), you’ll think you landed on a movie set from the 1950’s. On my most recent trip, I was quite surprised with some of the changes that have come to this island in the Caribbean. In addition to the vibrant art and music scene it has long been known for, Havana now boasts new hotels and amazing restaurants; one could easily stay here for a weekend. But to really get to know the country and its people, our advice is to take 8 days and explore the countryside on bike – in Cuba especially, there really is no better way to travel. Central Cuba boasts stunning beaches along its southern coast at Playa Larga and Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara are vibrant and interesting; each provide context for what the country has experienced and what is to come. Americans are starting to visit – contrary to what you read, it is quite easy to get a visa now. In the smaller villages, the casas particularles are not luxurious, but they are certainly clean and comfortable and the hosts as proud and friendly as could be. Live music, as you might guess, is everywhere – The Buenavista Social Club group may be the only band you’ve heard of but there is more musical talent on this island than anywhere I have traveled in the world.

Cycling along the quiet roads along with locals is the best way to experience this country now. On this most recent trip, even in the smaller towns where we stayed, the food was surprisingly very good with lots of variety. We ate lobster, fish, beef, pork and chicken. Every evening restaurant we dined in offered complimentary cuba libres or a mojito.

We met a family cycling on two tandems; the children were 5 yrs and 7 yrs and they were cycling around the whole country. The parents told us it was the safest country they had ever cycled in and that the kids were loving it. We felt a bit guilty with our customized support bus with AC, but everyone acknowledged the benefit of having local guides who showed us sites that the family would never have found on their own. In Trinidad, perhaps my favourite city, we spent a fun evening at the Casa de la Musica salsa dancing with Cubans on a large outdoor dance floor as an amazing band with a dozen musicians played their hearts out. Everyone was happy and smiling and you realized that despite living on so little, Cubans certainly enjoy themselves. They pride themselves on their spirit of community and egalitarianism; my hope is that as the country opens further, that they hold on to this spirit and sense of pride that they have. It’s a moment in time to be treasured.

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations

Central Cuba Biking