Thursday, December 24, 2015

More Observations about Cuba (3rd post about Cuba)

Baseball is a game that is tightly woven into the culture of both the US and Cuba.  It is clearly the top sport in Cuba and if you play it, where and when you play is controlled by the Castro regime. That said, there are 18 Cubans now playing in the major leagues, including Yoenis Cespedas. who just played in the World Series for the Mets, and they all had to endure a risky defection to get there. ( in fact, because of that defection one of Mr. Cespedas relatives in Cuba has been jailed). Cuba does send some of its players to other countries but the Govt. decides when and where and takes a piece of the action.  Major League Baseball is exploring the possibility of playing exhibition games in Cuba this spring but more importantly, has been working on a system where they can recruit players from Cuba (and its believed there are many more who's talent is good enough for Major League Baseball), but the Castro regime wont allow it unless the government gets compensated and that would violate the US Embargo.— Who knows when and if that standoff will ever be resolved.
But if you love baseball, one of the Cuba trips that Insight Cuba offers is Baseball in Cuba.

The US Embargo 
Not only are US companies banned from doing business in Cuba but  any foreign company doing business with Cuba is not allowed to do business in the US.  That explains all the old  cars— because  if Volkswagen  or Honda want to sell in the US they can't sell to Cuba.     Is also why the cruise ships don't stop here-yet. Almost every Caribbean cruise  carries many U.S passengers— If a cruise ship docked in Cuban ports the embargo prohibits them from docking in the US for 6 months. That is going to soon change.

Cuba, until Raul took over, was 100% socialist.  Now only 85% of the people work for the state.  The demand for tourism is so great they are allowing people to put their homes on Air B&B. They are also allowing people to start restaurants. As you would surmise, no one can really afford to start a traditional restaurant so they start with a couple tables in the living rooms of their homes and make the meals in their home kitchens.  If it goes well they may take over another room in the home or Apartment and in some cases they were successful enough that they moved to a new home or Apartment  and let the entire home become a small restaurant.   We ate in one, The Magic Flute, on the 19th floor of an Apartment bldg, just across from the US Embassy with a capacity of about 40 or 50. It was outstanding.

The music in Cuba is worth the trip all by itself.  We heard several jazz bands that are world class.  Progressive jazz, Afro Cuban jazz and much more.  A very few of the lucky ones are allowed to leave Cuba to  do tour dates, but the hoops a Cuban citizen has to go through to get a visa to leave are overwhelming.   At the jazz club, La Zorra El Cuervo,  we heard the contemporary jazz group  Jazz En Trance.  These guys were world class. Then we  went to Pastorita performing arts high school in Matanzas, and heard several students play short recitals for us.  Everything is paid for by the Government, including room and board and the instrument they are studying.   
  There are only 4 recording studios in Havana and they are all very busy.  We visited Abdala, where Beuna Vista Social Club recorded, is the largest and most prestigious.   I asked a couple of the musicians what the biggest challenge of being a musician was in Cuba.  We heard about the problems with the economy  and communism  and travel restrictions  but the guitar player told us there is no place in Cuba where they can buy guitar strings.  I am sure it has to do with years of trade embargo with the US   If you go to Cuba  pack a few sets of guitar strings in your bag,  It will be easy to find someone who will greatly appreciate the gift.

Despite  the oppressive government, people of Cuba that we met seem to be happy and joyful

More observations about Cuba

Vintage Cars

Old beautiful vintage cars cruise up and down the broad avenues and seaside roads every day. When people talk about Cuba  the vintage cars are usually near the top of the conversation list.  I am sure that they are what remained from the start of the  US embargo period.  These are cars that are  50 to 60 years old now,  hundreds of them cruise the streets of Havana, and mostly in tip-top condition. The pride of ownership shines through.  
 I asked a couple car owners “what is the biggest challenge with having these cars in Cuba?”   The answer was overwhelmingly parts.  Due to the embargo, I am sure, the auto manufactures were not allowed to send auto parts to Cuba.  But the Cubans are nothing, if not clever and inventive,  good at finding innovative solutions  for their challenges…  so they learned how to rebuild parts,   found other sources than the US and had friends coming from the US bring them in their checked luggage.  Maybe even tires— who knows.  
They have made a mini-industry out of these cars being an attraction. Some even have new LED headlights and some even have brand new engines  (like a Toyota engine in a ’59 Ford Farlane).  We were told of one car that replaced their engine with a washing machine motor. They serve as taxi’s but on an even larger scale they offer 1 or 2 hour tour rides of Havana.  When they all convene at one location,it’s a bit like being at a back to the 50’s car show.


As I prepared for the trip, if people were not asking me about the vintage cars they were asking me about Cigars.  The tobacco growing industry is very big here and the Cigars  are all hand rolled and in high demand around the world.  I stopped at a Cigar store to buy some for friends who asked for them, and the store was packed with people buying boxes of them.  I learned that cigar aficionados are very choosy about the kinds of cigars they want, thus the lines to purchase them are long and slow because  everyone has questions  “ whats the best?”

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The many faces of Cuba

Vintage Cars, Cigars,  and Colorful architecture is what comes to the minds of most people when they think about Cuba.   But there is so much more. I have been interested in visiting Cuba for several years now— and as US Cuba relations improve, I can just imagine the growth and development that will occur once things are totally normalized.    So I wanted to see Cuba before all that changed.  It seems to me,  the development will be so great that most of Havana may end up like  Cancun  or Miami Beach.  I guess we will have to see.

That is why I chose to go now.  So I signed up for a People to People trip  with Insight Cuba.  The tour  is called  “Jazz in Havana.”
The majority of the world visits Cuba without restriction. Not so for  US citizens,  who are highly restricted and the tours must have specific purposes.  Before 2011 even these kinds of tours were not permitted. It's a shame, because you don't have to be here but a few hours to see  what a wonderful country Cuba is to visit.

Our group of 24,  met in Miami, got acquainted, and had a short introductory orientation.  The next morning I left the hotel after breakfast at 10:00 AM and for 10 minute ride to the airport and a 90 mile flight  to Havana 

 My first stop was the small town of Jaimanitas, and the studio of ceramic artist Jose Fuster. Just over 30 years ago he began decorating  ceramic tiles, mostly in his home. He has now expanded to decorating most of the neighborhood and most of the neighbors homes.  His work is fabulous and  he is a brilliant folk artist, who chooses  ceramic tile as his medium.  I bought one of his tiles for $30 and I am proud to add it to my meager art collection.

At 5:30 I checked into the Melia Cohiba hotel, on the waterfront in the center of Havana.  For a country that is poor, and is  considered to be  3rd world , this hotel is  quite luxurious.  Then I was off to dinner at El Templete which is famous for its traditional Cuban style seafood.  Cuban food in general is quite bland, but this meal was scrumptious.

Day Two
After breakfast we  had an hour lecture with Cuban musicologist Alberto Faya.  In the context of survival he talked about what we do to preserve our lives and our culture.  Conquerers, he told us, not only bring their concepts and culture , they impose it on those whom they conquer. So the Spanish, when they landed here in the late 1400s  pretty much wiped out the culture of the native Cuban inhabitants. Thus came Spanish  musical influence to Cuba.  Shortly after that came the slave trade and the Africans infused the culture and music of their native lands into Cuba.  That was his first example of  what he calls Transculturation.

His second example was Jelly Roll Morton .  Because of the proximity to the US  the influences of Cuban and American music  became intertwined, with some American music (mostly Jazz) absorbing Cuban influence and vice versa. His talk was  fascinating.

Then it was onto our bus with my 24 newest friends for a walking tour of Old Havana.  This used to be a walled city, but as it grew beyond its walls, the walls finally came down. Some remnants remain.  Old Havana is now pedestrian only. As I walked on the Plaza de Armas we learned about the Capitan Generals wife  who got splitting headaches from the loudness of the cobblestone streets. So he had the street in front of his house dug up and replaced with a much quieter wood surface, which still exists today.

Plaza de Vieja is a beautiful old plaza with very colorful and beautiful buildings, but we can already see  stores like United Colors of Bennetton and Lacoste,   staking out locations  in preparation for the normalization of relations with the US   Carnival Cruises is planning to add Cuba as a stop  sometime in the next 6 months— then things are gonna change quickly. 
My lunch at  Los Mercaderes was delicious,  Cuban jazz accompanied our  BBQ chicken and beans —  Most restaurants here are state owned and operated but this one is private and I can see there is a big difference.

We stopped at the jazz club,La Zorra El Cuervo,  where we heard the contemporary jazz group  Jazz En Trance.These musicians are world class. They have toured Eastern Europe, but are  hoping  they will soon be able to tour the US.  I am going to see if I can get them introduced to the right people in the US
Then our tour group split up.  Maggie and I were the only ones who went on the Abdala recording studio tour and it was fascinating. There are only 4 recording studios in Havana.  Abdala, where Beuna Vista Social Club recorded, is the largest and most prestigious.   I asked a couple of the musicians what the biggest challenge of being a musician was in Cuba.  We heard about the problems with the economy  and communism  and travel restrictions  but the guitar player told us there is no place in Cuba where they can buy guitar strings.  If you go to Cuba stick a few sets of guitar strings in your suitcase.  It won't be hard to find someone who needs them.  

Day Three
On the bus at 8:30 this morning and we headed for the town of Matanzas,  a couple hours east of Havana. The first stop was at a publishing house where they preserve the culture of publishing  hand made books.  By handmade, I mean from scratch.  They make the paper, stitch the binding, create the artwork,   some of which may just be a collage, and make a limited edition of only 200 copies of each book.  I think its safe to say J.K. Rowling won’t be looking for a publishing deal here.  Some are in Spanish and some in English.  I bought a book that is 1” by 1” and is an abbreviated history of Cuba.  I am thinking about renaming it  “Everything I ever knew about Fidel Castro”.
Then it was off to the Pastorita Art School where we heard several of the students play a musical recital for us.  This is one of the choices these kids can make for High School. There are 108 students in the school and it's completely paid for including room and board and they are issued the musical instruments for training.  (they must return them when they are done at school)

This brings me to the educational system here in Cuba. It seems to operate at quite a high standard, in fact they have a literacy rate of 99.8% making it the second highest in the world. And its all free including University or a trade school, whichever you choose. And yes that could even include medical school, of which there are 23.  The average salary here in Cuba seems to be  25-35  CUC a month.  (1CUC=$1.00 US)  A doctor makes an average of 70-80 CUC per month.  That would be a very wealthy person in Cuba.
The overwhelming  majority of people work for the Govt.  but they are given full education, complete health care and food rations. Not much to pay for but housing. A very few work in the private sector mostly at restaurants and Hotels that serve tourists.  These lucky people seem to be able to  earn  more than government workers.  All due to the recent changes that Raul Castro has allowed in Cuba since taking power from his older brother Fidel.

I had lunch at Amelia Del Mar where we also enjoyed a performance by the dance and Congo drum group  Afrocuba de Mantanzas.  They were wonderful.  If I didn't understand the African influence on Cuban music from Dr. Faya's earlier lecture, I certainly could see it in this performance.

Day Four
Today started with a visit to the local food coop.  If I thought I understood the difference in lifestyle between Americans and Cubans,  I had another think coming.  My eyes were really opened up here.  Food rations are issued to every citizen in Cuba at a cost of about fifty cents a month.  For this they get staples like rice, pasta,  sugar, milk some meat and a few  more basics.    Next door to the Rations store is the local market, which to me looked like a farmers market.  
Our group divided into 6 teams. We were each given  approx. 1CUC and told to go in the market and buy enough food for one meal for a family of four.  We all were able to accomplish it  (amazing eh)? We brought it back to the bus and  our bus driver Leo, chose which   team presented the best meal.  Leo got to take all the groceries home that we purchased.  I think that gave him enough food for almost a weeks worth of dinners for his family.— So I now see their low earnings in another light.  But it did create a wonderful discussion “Our standard of living is clearly much higher than the average Cuban, but are we happier because of it?”  I don't know but I can safely tell you it's not as easy of an answer as you might think.

Day Five
There was one final stop on the way to the airport and this may fall under the category of saving the best for last.  I visited a neighborhood  dance studio, that they just call the Jazz Club, in  the Santa Amalia neighborhood with several senior citizen jazz dancers.  What a blast!!  There were a couple young dancers but they were mostly in the late 70’s and 80’s and they not only danced the  Rumba and Tango for us ,but after affecting us with their abundant enthusiasm they pulled me and everyone else in our group onto the floor to dance with them.  We learned that for several years these dance gatherings were banned by Castro, but they kept going anyway. That ban has now been lifted.   The joy on their faces as they all waved to us as our bus pulled away was truly inspiring.

That afternoon,  we rode around Havana in  50’s  and even 40’s cars that catch everyones attention when they visit Cuba. Mine was an immaculate  ’57 chevy.   We drove down to Revolution Square   where Pope Francis held mass here a few weeks ago just prior to his visit to the US   

Cuba is a beautiful country, no doubt about it, but visiting here is more like a college course in culture and lifestyle.  Come visit, meet the people and you will see what I mean.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

St. Regis Hotel and Monarch Beach Golf Links Dana Pt CA

The weather of Southern California may be the best year round weather in the U.S.  Just a few miles from  renowned Laguna Beach, with its great restaurants and art galleries lies  the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort.  Come for the fabulous weather and to frolic by the sea and experience some wonderful golf at the Monarch Beach Golf Links.  Where did it get it’s name?  This used to be a breeding ground for the Monrach butterflies and during your round here you are  certain to encounter a few yourself.

But their presence is just an added bonus to your round of golf here.  Monarch Beach is 6,645 yards from the tips  par 70 designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. that was built as a 9 hole  course  in 1983.  8 years later the other 9 was added.  The two nines couldn’t be more different.  But thats a good thing.  The luxurious St Regis hotel followed in 2000  making it a complete and luxurious place to stay and play.   There are five par-3’s and only two par-5s, and the most visually intriguing holes here at Monarch Beach are the par-3’s..  

612 yard Number seven is  the only par-5 on the front nine and is the number one handicap.  My experience is that it is rare indeed to see a par-5 as the number one handicap hole.  The clubs pro, Jackie Kazarian, thinks its the hardest hole in all of Orange County.    Thats hard.

On a clear day, which it wasn’t today, you can see the Pacific Ocean from every tee box, however numbers 3 and 4 are the only two holes that actually play oceanside.  Jackie told us the first 5 holes are called the Ocean loop and the next 4 hole are called the Canyon loop.  I can see why. We clearly went from the ocean  to playing in a Canyon.

Number Four at Monarch Golf Links

Even with the drought, the course was in wonderful shape today, especially the greens.  The bunkering is a work of art in itself and they were  wonderfully playable  (don’t ask me how I know, just trust me).  The greens were in outstanding shape and running at almost 11 on the stimpmeter.  So staying below the hole is a key strategy here in your approach shots.  Most good greens that I play are some advanced form of Bent grass but these are Poa Ana.  My experience is that most greenskeepers spend frustrating amounts of time trying to keep Poa Ana off of a golf course, but these greens were wonderful.  Go figure.

Even  though the front nine has 2 oceanside holes  the back 9 is by far the most intriguing, with water and expansive views.   Number 13 is a stunning par 3 played from a tee box 60-80 feet downhill to a green surrounded by water on three sides and sand on the other.

Finishing Hole at Monarch Beach Golf Links

Even though most of the holes lay out visually in front of you on the tee box there are many times you need to know distance to a sand trap, hazard or layup spot.  The carts have the latest  in GPS technology with touch screens, so that you can touch your target on the screen and instantly see its distance.  If you prefer your information from people, then try their Waterman forecaddie program where one of their highly trained caddies will assist you the entire round.

They don't have a driving range but they do have 4 hitting bays into nets that allow for an adequate warm up.  On tournament days they set up the first fairway as a driving range and pick it clean just 10 minutes before the shotgun goes off to start the tournament. Voila, from driving range to first hole.

Monarch Beach Golf Links is semi private and is avail for public play.  They also have stay and play packages with the luxurious St. Regis hotel on property.

If you love your golf equipment as much as you like your golf, then plan a day to visit Carlsbad, CA just  30  miles down the coast where almost all of the major golf equipment manufacturers call home.

July and August are pageant season here in Laguna Beach, and that means performances every night of the Pageant of the Masters.  where well known paintings are brought to life on stage by real live people. and quite a spectacle it is.  I don’t know how they do it but its like magic.   If you want to see the pageant while you are there  get your tickets early.  This 3,500 seat venue sells out almost every night.

If you are looking for more family activities in the area  just down the road  30  miles is Legoland—  Yeah I said Legoland.  Where everything is made from legos: elephants, giraffes, The Sydney Opera House,  The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and even the NY skyline.  They are made by “master builders”    If a day of legos isn't enough for you— then you may want to stay on property in the Legoland hotel—-  I guess you can sleep with legos and maybe have your meals with Legos..  At over $300 per night this hotel is regularly sold out but the rooms are all themed and if you love legos, this is the place for you.

For more information visit

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Golf in Ontario Canada

Toronto is now the 4th largest city in North America,  Fly there and then head for the countryside surrounding Toronto for some enjoyable and challenging golf.
When most people think about a golf trip they rarely think about Canada but my weeklong trip here gives me a new perspective on that.  You have access to one of the worlds great cosmopolitan cities and some beautiful countryside and wonderful golf courses nearby.
The economy of this area is over 50% driven by tourism. Fishing, Beach and Wineries probably top the list but golf is not far behind and growing in popularity.  And if you are coming from the U.S.  the exchange rate with the Canadian dollar is very favorable. (today one U.S. dollar is worth $1.30 Canadian.)

Today we played  Angus Glen.  Three days later Angus Glen hosted the Pan Am Games golf tournament.  Did you know that golf is now a sport in both the Pan Am Games and the Olympics? This was its first year and it was a success. 
 In 2002 and 2007  The South Course hosted the Canadian Open which was renovated  earlier 2015 to the tune of $6 million.
There are 36 holes here (North and South) and South is the where the tournaments are played and a championship course it is.  If you are a beginning golfer, this may not be the place for you as there are many places to loose balls in the water, fescue, (lots of which was added in the renovation) wetlands ponds and streams.  But if you love a challenging walk in nature this may be exactly the place for you.

There are many things to do around Toronto and one of our stops was 
Canadian Tire Motorsport Park—-  If you love motor racing, then you don’t want to pass up a visit here.  This 2.5 mile track hosts many  auto and motorcycle races including Formula 1,Indy Car, Stock Car. They also offer lapping days and driving schools with professional drivers for those who want to  experience this for themselves.

Nestleton Waters Inn.   Tucked away in the countryside of Nestelton  Ontario, just about 50 minutes east of downtown Toronto sits this charming  B&B.  It sits on 93 acres of forest and a spring fed pond.  There are 7 very individually decorated rooms  (two are 2 bedroom suites.  Mine was the Mapenzi suite decorated in an African theme. Our hosts,  the Kiezebrink family, built the entire B&B and they did an outstanding job and  truly make you feel like its your own home.  We stayed in some wonderful hotels on this trip but this place is very special.

Royal Ashburn Golf Club
How does a golf club get a Royal designation?  In the UK it happens by a decree of a royal family member.  In this case  the club made an application to the Govt. of Canada and got one from them.  (It didn’t hurt that Prince Andrew had been there.)   This club is in Whitby Ontario  just 45 minutes from the center of Toronto.  We spent some time with the owner, Wilson Paterson, a life member in the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame.  He told us about the course and  the many rounds of golf he played with Moe Norman, right here on this golf course.  For those of you who have never heard of Moe Norman,  he is widely regarded as the greatest ball striker in history.  An old set of Moe’s clubs is on display in the clubhouse and  the worn spot on each iron is the size of a dime and right in the center of each clubface.
Royal Ashburn is a beautiful parkland course  with ponds and streams on eight of the holes. Five sets of tees  gives every level of player a challenge from 7104 yards down to 4783.  Greens fees are $85-$92  (weekdays or weekends) plus a cart.


Bay of Quinte Golf & Country Club
Founded in 1921 (they are 94 years old this year)  Bay of Quinte Golf & Country Club is a true value in southern Ontario. Par 73 and playing only 6571 yards from the tips and down to 5063 from the reds. This place is a real value at $44 and $52 on weekends  (plus cart if you want to ride).  These greens were in outstanding shape and running at least 11 on the stimpmeter.  There is water in play on nearly half the holes but  its all easy to navigate.  Three of the four par 3’s are long for such a short course. but that makes for some short and attackable  par 4 holes.  There are several interesting holes  and number 14 is a perfect example.  It plays 262 from the tips and is drivable for big hitters,  but if you are even 20 yards short, you are in trouble— so its best to lay up to 100 yards  or be sure to stay to the right  where there is a very welcoming, yet narrow strip of fairway.   Come play here and have a meal in the clubhouse and enjoy the view over the shore of Lake Ontario.

Black Bear Ridge Golf Club
Black Bear Ridge may be  the best golf value in the area. It sits on a beautiful piece of property with wonderful views from its many elevation changes. It opened in 2005 and was designed by its owner  Brian Mcgee.  There are not many golf courses designed by non professional golf course architects but this is one and its magnificent.  I call  them “one and done.”  Routing a golf course is such a challenge that few people can do it successfully, especially with no training.  This is a story in itself.

The first tee sits on  top of a hill overlooking the fairway 100 feet below and there are several holes with similarly dramatic views from their tee boxes like 7,10 and 17.  Number 8 may be a short hole  (300 yards or less depending on which tees you play) but don't let that fool you. It is  a sweeping dogleg right with a large pond guarding the entire right side.  

If you are not paying full attention to this beautiful place then # 11 will stop you in your tracks. It was originally designed as a par 6  (that's not a typo)  at 692 yards from the tips  (it must be over 690 yards to qualify as a par 6)  They shortened it by 2 yards because almost no one ever played the very longest tee box) so  it is now a legal par 5, sweeping around a 600 acre migratory nesting ground.   
Par 5 Number 18 heads back up hill to the clubhouse with stunning  cross bunkering and colorful fescue framing the green at the top of the hill.  With all its streams, ponds  and treelined fairways this will be a breathtaking course in the peak of fall colors.


The Briars Resort
Sits on the shore of Lake Simcoe an hour north of Toronto and has been in the Sibbald family since 1876. Its still family run, and guests stay in either the historic manor house or adjacent cottages.  It has old world charm that wont quit— even to the point that they still use  old style room keys.  Miles of hiking trails,  a world class spa all at a beautiful lakeside resort.

TheBriar’s golf resort  right next door has been a secret in the Toronto area but its soon to be a secret no more.  It was originally a nine hole layout designed but Canada’s premier golf course architect, Stanley Thompson in 1922. Fifty years later Robbie Robinson, a former protege of Thompson,  added the back nine. If someone didn’t tell you they were built 50 years apart you would never know because both nines wind seamlessly and breathtakingly through the trees , ponds and streams narrowing into velvety slick greens.  
 Its short at 6285 from the tips  but mighty.  If you refuse to leave your driver in the bag on several of these holes, you may regret it. Briar’s is private,  but the Briar’s resort has stay and play packages, so it’s the only way on for the general public,  on this former  farm. On #14 still stands an old grain silo as a memory of that farm and it seems that everyone stops to take a photo of it.    Definitely worth it, is all I can say.  I hope to return here to play again one day.

Lora Bay Golf Club  is located about an hour north of Toronto.  This golf club was designed by  Tom Lehman and Thomas McBroom.  It sits right on the shore of Georgian Bay, of Lake Huron with a spectacular new clubhouse.    The back nine has some especially interesting holes.  Just behind the green on number 11 sits a century old barn.  #14, a short par 4, that some call “The temptress” is a mere 328 yards from the tips with plenty of trouble in the landing area   so choose your club at the tee carefully.  Then comes the signature hole number 15 par three that drops over 200 feet below to the forest floor,  but as you enjoy the spectacular panoramic view of Georgian Bay.  remember  you cant stay there forever, you still have 3 holes to go.
The par 5, 16th has you hitting to an elevated fairway.  This hole has only one bunker and no water but  there is more challenge here than you can imagine.


Caledon Country Club
Caledon Country Club is a really fun par 72, 6502 golf course from the tips. It has lots of elevation changes and it makes for a fun day.  The holes even have  catchy names such as #3 Devils Corridor, #5 The Chute, #7 Slipery Slope, #9 Go For Broke #12 The Prayer #14 The Signature and #15 Alcatraz.  That alone should clearly define this quirky little course.

Hockley Valley Resort
Just how challenging can a par 71 golf course be with one water hazard in play  (maybe 2), not one single sand trap and playing 6358 yards from the tips?  The answer is much harder than you think.
Hockley Vallley has so much elevation change that  they had to get gas carts because  the battery powered carts  couldn’t hold enough charge  to make it 18 holes. This amount of elevation change also makes it almost impossible to walk.
The greens are small and most sit in an amphitheatre.  They look beautiful and at first glance would appear to gather your ball back down to the green, however if your approach  gets  more than  8 or 10 feet off the green, you are likely  to have a near impossible chip.  
Finding a level lie  after you leave the tee box on this golf course  may be a challenge in itself.  I know I said there are no sand bunkers but there are more than enough grass bunkers to make up for it.  And the funky lies these produce probably make for harder shots than any fluffy lie in a sandtrap.  
 Beauty abounds.  We were on the course at the end of the day and the  deep shadows  of twilight  make all this bunkering and elevation change  (somewhere between 600-800 feet of elevation change)  just breathtaking.  One more thing, the mowing patterns  (contrasts of rough, fairway and greens) makes this golf course look like a work of art.  Before this week I had barely heard of golf course architect, Thomas McBroom, who designed Hockley Valley, but now I am going to seek out other courses that he has designed.  I began to wonder if I have ever seen a golf course with no sand bunkers,  I can’t remember one but I had a chance to ask Thomas  McBroom and he answered “I, like you, don't think there is another course anywhere that is bunkerless.”
That certainly isnt definitive.  Do you know of one?

#10 has a 100’ drop to the fairway and #17 has a drop from the tee box to the fairway of over 120’  and there are many more with similar  views.  Hitting shots from these tee boxes will have hang time that would make an NFL punter proud.  If you don’t like heights this may not be the place for you.

Wooden Sticks

Wooden Sticks, designed by Ron Garl,  has twelve out of eighteen holes that are “inspired by”   holes from Augusta National, St. Andrews, Sawgrass, Pine Valey and Troon. They are  not intended to be exact replicas, but when you step onto the tee box of these holes  you  will certainly recognize them   The other 6 holes really make the course worth the full day visit.
Most guest stays here are 6-7 hours and each round includes  2 full meals from the restaurant menu.
Many use their stay and play packages as they have 6 cottages on property.

We went fishing on Lake Ontario and even challenged ourselves to a ropes course.   The golf here is wonderful but there is certainly lots more to do.  Come to Canada while the exchange rate is  favorable.

To book a tour of this wonderful area contact:  
Golfstream  Travel

Phone 905-267-4902 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I was recently a guest on the podcast  KEEP YOUR DAYDREAM  talking about my quest to play the top 100 golf courses in America.
Here is a link

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Exploring the Mainland of Greece

Greece is a favorite stop on many cruise boat itineraries  and tourist destinations. But most tourists visit  Athens for a  day or two and then venture out to the islands  of Mykonos  Crete or Santorini.  All wonderful places to visit, mind you, but this trip is about exploring parts of Greece that are often overlooked.

Rather than stay downtown by the Acropolis,  we stayed at the Semiramis Hotel in the suburban village of Kifissia  about 20 miles from the airport and 10 miles from the city center.

Semiramas is a very contemparary hotel  with 51 rooms mostly overlooking either the pool or the park across the street.  We are on the first floor with a balcony over looking the park , which we walked through several times while we were here.

The hotel is designed by Karim Rashid and feels like  a contemporary art gallery, with lollipop colors throughout and contemporary hotel technology (like artistic symbols to identify the rooms rather than room numbers) Its a hotel you will not soon forget.  Free wifi,  kid friendly, with several family activities on property,  a very generous daily breakfast buffet  tasty room service and many boutiques shops, restaurants  and coffee shops all walking distance from the hotel in  this upscale residential area of Athens.
rates range from 100 to 150 euros per night

This trip is being organized by Tripology Adventures and  it’s going to be an intriguing one.  We will be exploring the mainland of Greece, in 4 wheel drive vehicles.

Yesterday, after visiting the Acropolis and other historical sights of Athens  we gathered at the Alexandros Hotel and had a briefing from our tour guide about our upcoming trip

After  breakfast 16 of us got in 4 jeeps and headed out of town in a convoy.  We are being led by two guides in the lead vehicle, all in contact by two way radio.  Slowly we found our way out of Athens, onto the highway headed northwest and  stopped for lunch on the shore of Sea of Corinth in Aspra Spitia  (White houses).  What a setting for a restaurant with the sea breeze drifting over us as we enjoyed the Greek cuisine. 
 Here is an interesting fact I learned about Greece today,  Greece is approx the size of the state of Alabama  but it has approx the same amount of shoreline as the entire US.

Then we headed for Delphi for a fascinating 2 hour tour. Our tour guide was Penny Kolomvotsou. and when you go,  be sure to request her as a tour guide— she was outstanding.  (for more information on this see the accompanying article)

Day 2
After breakfast  we circumvented Lake Mornos,a beautiful alpine lake.—  up and down mountainsides on narrow windy roads some  blacktop, and some dirt roads that are cut through the forest and occasionally along mountainside cliffs.  It was so beautiful,we must have stopped over a dozen times just to soak in the spectacular views and take photos.
A coffee break in the quaint village of Lidoriki (pop approx 600) was one of todays highlights.  It’s  quaint and charming, just as you would expect a small greek town to be.  It seems as though there is a little surprise in each of these little villages.  Todays was a cab stand in the center of town. The cabs were 4 Mercedes Benz.   

We then ascended to a hanging church  for a  a picnic lunch   overlooking  Lake Mornos.  What a setting for a picnic
About 6 PM we arrived at our hotel in Elatou.  This village is so small that it may not exist if it were not for this hotel. 
We had a lovely dinner right here in the hotel

Day 3
Out the door at 9 am and we are now ascending through the Pinos mountains  to vast views over Lake Evinos.
 Todays little surprise was a coffee stop in Arachova  which introduced us to a tavern keeper who showed us how they make their own liquors and essential oils.  
   The beauty here never stops.  Our lunch stop today was at  Taverna Antigoni in the village of Kaliakuda   and it was wonderful

This trip is not only about the natural beauty of the countryside but is a greek culinary experience as well.   The food comes  non-stop,  delicious and varied.  As I look back on it, in these small towns, the last thing I would have expected would be to say “if this restaurant were in my home town, it would be a regular stop for me, but that is how I felt.  If you are a foodie, you are going to love this trip.  Two of the people with us own a restaurant in Northern California and it seems they were  inquiring about the recipes or figuring out what ingredients were in the meals.  I am sure that one or two of these dishes are going to end up on their menu.

Many of the villages we are visiting seem to be one step back in time. Most appear to be self sufficient,  raising their own small herds of sheep or goats  and small plots of land that grow most of  their own food.  I don't think we have seen a grocery store since we left Athens.   Several times we had to just stop on one of these mountain roads while a farmer who was out with his flock of sheep or goats  took his sweet time to move his herd out of the way. This would probably be very annoying at home but here its just plain charming.   In Arachova we even saw a little old lady walking her single goat on a leash.

This evening we ended up above the village of Karpneissi at the hotel Montana.  Our world has changed once again.  This is a town of approx 15,000 and  is actually a ski resort in the winter  Thus this is a resort hotel with 105 rooms and 23 suties, a spa, workout room and activity center for the kids.— They picked a wonderful place to stay for 2 nights.

Day 4
Today we are headed for Kremaston Lake and spent most of the day along the Trikeriotis River.  We stopped for a break on the bank of the river,  then had lunch in the quaint village of Helidona. Shortly after we stopped  at Prousous Monestary which  was the highlight of the day, built into a cliff  This will be nothing compared to the Monasteries we will see at Meteora.

Dinner  at No Timo. This restaurant was so small that our group of 16 pretty much took over the entire place.  When I asked our guide the name of the restaurant he said  “some of these restaurants are so small I don't even know their name.  I just know the names of the owners.”

Day 5

Today  Coffee  stop at Taverna Makkas—-  then lunch at Neromyaos  which means water mill.  This was a wonderful place.  The  Proprieter gave us a short cooking demonstration  on  their version of a burger mixing Beef, Onion, Egg, soaked bread, Parsley and Oregeno.—  and it was fantastic.   This Taverna is riverside and we ate outdoors right next to a small waterfall.   They keep a small fish farm so the fish is fresh.    Oregeno seems to be a staple spice here.  Earlier this year this place was completely flooded  and its already back in business.

We spent the remainder of the day on a spectacular dirt road climbing to a mountain pass just above the tree line at 5400 feet  with great views  of  lakes, streams and villages below. and even some left over snow patches from the previous winter. The  beauty of the  Greek Mountainside and these roads is truly something to behold.

At the end of the day we arrived in Meteora which I am anticipating will be the highlight of the trip.  The home of the Monasteries built in the rocks.  Toped off with a wonderful dinner at Panorama— at the foot of the  rocks of Meteora
(see side bar article)

Overnight  Hotel Famissi Eden 

Day 6
Its back to Athens with a stop for lunch seaside by the Agean sea and our farewell dinner in the center of Athens with great food and live music and dancing.

I have traveled the world and taken part in lots of organized trips  but this one is unique and fascinating.

What  makes this trip so wonderful for the family?

1. This trip is all about sharing a cultural experience with your family, that they are       unlikely to encounter anywhere else.
2. The wonderful emersion into the stories of Greek Mythology
3. The spectacular scenery and geography of  mainland Greece
4. You are connected to  a group but the family can all be in one car.
5. There are plenty of water activities available on the way  such as kayaking,  tubing, swimming, as well as plenty of kids activities at many of the hotels.

To arrange this trip contact:
Tripology Adventures  at
phone     720-316-6353. 

Get a photo of a car on the dirt road  from Anette  (give her a credit)


The Story of the Oracle at Delphi

In the Classical  era  (approx 600 B.C.- 400 B.C. Delphi was considered the center of the world  (at least the world as the Greeks knew it)  As the myth goes, Zues released 2 birds from the farthest points of the world and where they met, Zues declared as the center of the world and threw down a stone from the heavens, now called the Naval stone, right here in Delphi. People flocked  here not only because it was the center of the world but also because of the Temple of Apollo and eventually to consult the Oracle of Delphi at  Apollo’sTemple.  Just what was this oracle? No one spoke to the Oracle directly, they spoke to a preistess who was the intermediary.  There was a rock that emitted vapors that were known to create hallucinations and from this, people got their advice, usually about major choices facing them in life from the Oracle.  Was it religious?  Was it Political?  We don't know, but  one might assume that  consulting the Oracle was a way of confirming or not confirming ones belief in a major decision one was making.  Several people made multiple trips to consult the Oracle.  If they didn’t like what they heard the first time they just returned until they did.  So one could conclude that  it could have been a bit like the Wizard in the Wizard of OZ.   If you don't like the answer then just “ignore the man behind the curtain” I doubt we will ever really know. But hey, welcome to the world of Greek Mythology.
Delphi is now a Unesco protected site and definitely worth visiting.

One of the charming things about this trip, especially for kids, is the Mythology of Greece     Zues, Apollo,  and his many kids, mistresses and wives.   Our guide shared several of these myths with us.

From there we went a couple miles to the Amalia hotel, located just down the road, which is very contemporary and a wonderful hotel with a view of Mt. Parnasus  and the valley below.

The Rock formations and Monasteries  of Meteoria

by Larry Berle
Meteoria is about 6 hour drive north of Athens and the 2nd most visited tourist site in all of Greece.  There are 6 monastaries here  4 for monks and 2 for nuns.

98% of Greece is Greek Orthodox.  The first of these was founded in the 14th century by a couple monks who wanted a hermit like existence in order to be closer to God.  They set up homesteads in caves and little by little as more Monks were interested in the life style, a community of hermit monks began to emerge.  They began to build a very isolated Monastery where they  lived quietly  and spent 8 hours of everyday in prayer. In a couple hundred years the community grew to about 100 monks and the building of other monasteries in the community  ensued.    The access was almost impossible for the public as the only way to reach these bldgs was by a basket and rope  (they were pulled up by their fellow monks.) This is also how supplies and  food    got into the monasteries.  Steps to enter did not come until  1925, Electricity showed up some time in the 1980’s and running water showed up about the same time. This, of course, was followed by roads and tourists.  Today there are 3 monks living in this monastery and it is supported by tourism.   The only Monastery left in Greece that still does not allow tourists, to the best of my knowledge is Mt Athos, on the other side of Greece.