Sunday, May 15, front and center on the Herald Tribune was the article about our Culinary Cuba departure led by Chef Tommy & Jaymie Klauber along with ATI's Taryn Daley and Alexis Leeming on our first foray into the once forbidden country.
Read the article below:
By Maggie Menderski
Published: Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 4:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 4:40 p.m.
Cuba was always forbidden fruit. That's torture for a chef.
But as five decades of political turmoil waned between the United States and the island just 90 miles south and unprecedented interaction set in, the culture became that much more attainable for Sarasota's chef Tommy Klauber.
“To have some place like Cuba so close to home, but so far — like forbidden fruit for my entire life,” Klauber said. “The curiosity got me. I saw it as a window.” Klauber and a group of Sarasota travelers boarded a plane to Havana in late April, just a week before the first Carnival cruise ship docked on Cuba's shores.
The Sarasota chef is far from the only one reaching for the apple: Cuba welcomed 161,000 Americans in 2015, an increase of 77 percent from the previous year. A record-breaking 3.52 million travelers visited Cuba last year, eclipsing 2014's total by 17.4 percent. Cuba's open gates also promised to fundamentally change the island as a whole.
Today, classic 1950s cars roll through the streets. Remnants of a once grandiose skyline in Havana continue to deteriorate. But Southwest Florida's recent Cuban tourists don't expect it to look that way much longer as their counterparts begin flooding the island nation. “We're looking around, and just like our own little (Sarasota) skyline here, we could see the cranes starting to pop up,” Klauber said. “There's a construction boom.”
Sarasota's Cari Fallen and her husband, Howard Akey, had heard the country was frozen in time, and they wanted to see it before it started moving again. So the couple signed on when they learned Sarasota's Admiral Travel International was planning a people-to-people, culinary, cultural exchange.
These exchanges have served as a gateway to Cuba for Americans itching to get there before it evolves to meet the market demands of U.S. tourists. Americans have been able to travel to Cuba under these specific, authorized trips since the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba was restored in late 2014. The Obama administration has since loosened sanctions even more. Today, Americans can travel to the country independently, if they complete paperwork declaring the visit an educational journey.
Marking a milestone
Fallen's husband was approaching his 60th birthday and had always talked about wanting to see Cuba. A trip across the Straits of Florida seemed like the best way to mark the milestone. The travelers would dine in Cuba's paladares restaurants while Klauber worked in the kitchens with the local, independent chefs. He'd get to see the Cuban influences that have seeped into Florida cuisine for decades, while the travelers would break through language barriers and connect with the local people through meals.
They learned early on that life in Cuba is what the guides call “complicado.” Americans are accustomed to a world of constant communication, and with their modern gadgets constantly searching for signals, notifications were slim. Delays were common, and the Cuban people had an inspiring way of dealing with it. “Prepare for inconvenience and just roll with it,” Fallen said.
The flight from Miami to Havana was only about 42 minutes, but it felt a world apart. The travelers left the bustling, metropolitan city and arrived in a predominantly bare airport. They were given a ripped-off, half sheet of paper for a visa and told to keep it for the whole trip. Without the scrap, they couldn't leave the country.
“You felt like you were dropped back 50 years, and that time had just stood still,” Fallen said.
Charter flights have been the primary pipeline for Americans seeking that authentic, Cuban experience, but that's about to change. U.S. airlines in February began bidding on as many as 110 U.S.-to-Cuba flights per day, which was more than five times what had been allowed before. Those flights are expected to begin later this year.
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport executives say that it is not out of the question that one of those flights could come into SRQ, though it is more likely that they will go to larger outlets like Tampa International Airport. Sarasota-Bradenton has, however, pushed for a nonstop flight to Miami, which would give Sarasotans greater access to Cuba, said Mark Stuckey, the airport's vice president of special projects and development.
Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, says she is not expecting Cuba to hurt the region's tourism industry. Travelers with Havana on their bucket list are likely looking for something a little bit different than Sarasota's reputation for luxury. The Sunshine State, as Cuba's closest neighbor in the U.S., will be a main artery for American travelers heading to the island when it fully opens. If anything, Haley said, the up-and-coming destination may bring more tourists through Southwest Florida.
The areas with the most worries about a Cuban-driven decline in tourism are Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Mexico. Haley already has heard uneasiness from the tourism agencies in those destinations.
“All of them are really concerned,” Haley said. “They're the ones who are really going to lose out by people saying, 'Let's try this.'”
Trying this is exactly what's happening on the other side of Straits of Florida.
Preparing for the kinks
American travel to Cuba is still in a test-run stage of sorts. The land was beautiful, welcoming and life-changing, but it also is a country in transition, said Alexis Leeming, the Admiral travel agent who led the people-to-people exchange.
Quality varied. The travelers spent one, stunning evening riding through the lively streets of Havana in personal parade of 1950s classic convertibles. They also spent a couple nights at a beach resort that never would have earned five stars by American standards.
There are kinks, and Leeming spent almost a whole year preparing for them before takeoff . “It's not like you can just go to the airport, grab a flight to Cuba, and just show up at the beach and have a pina colada,” Leeming said.
She spoke weekly with her connections on the ground in Cuba, bracing for a world without many technological connections or credit card usage. The visitors brought their own toilet paper and made detailed packing lists for the trip. If they forgot or needed something, they couldn't just pop into a pharmacy to pick up an extra toothbrush or a roll of antacids.
Cuba operates on a rations system, and that also limits what is available to tourists. “It's so close to us, but it's the most exotic place,” Leeming said. “To American travelers, it's extremely exotic. Most haven't been there. Most people haven't been able to go there and see it. It's so different from our day-to-day reality over there.”
Their smartphones were reduced to mere cameras. Without cellphone service, the tourists missed the strings of calls, texts, emails and notifications that often clutter American lives. But instead of being glued to their phones, they saw people dancing on the streets, playing music together and kicking a soccer ball under the moonlight. Life seemed simpler without the constant connectivity. “It was weird not to have your cellphone,” Fallen said. “You just sat and concentrated, and we just talked and laughed.”
Regulations are tight, but have relaxed some as the relationship between Cuba and the United States has mended. The group traveled with a government-appointed guide, but the itineraries are less stringent and supervised than they have been in the past. The travelers had the freedom to walk the city in the morning or take a swim at the beach. That flexibility is entirely new to American travelers.
So is the warmness of the Cuban people.Fallen was told to bring small items or tips to pass out to the local people. She brought a large stash of lotions, soaps, candies and toiletries — the kind of samples Americans often throw away or pack in the back of junk drawers. To the Cubans, the samples were treasures and luxuries.
But for every item the travelers handed out, they received something worth more. Fallen left the country with a tie to the land and a fondness for the people. She had been back to Sarasota less than a week and was already thinking about returning.
Leeming, too, has another trip to Cuba in the works. By then the skyline may have shifted. The rules will certainly have changed again. The authenticity may have dimmed.
Cuba is “complicado.”
Somehow, that's part of the attraction.