Cars of Cuba, Massive American Metal Still Rolls

I remember hearing tales back in the seventies and eighties of Cubans maintaining their automobiles well beyond their normal life span because of the embargo on cars being imported from the states. Now it seemed that too much time had passed for these vintage vehicles to still be operational. Boy, was I wrong! CONTINUE READING >> 

When the folks at Backroads contacted us about joining them for a bicycle tour in Cuba we were thrilled. The island had long been one of our dream destinations, high on the old bucket list we could say.

While we were preparing for the trip, I got to wondering if the stories about classic American cars roaming the roads were still true. I remembered hearing tales back in the seventies and eighties of Cubans maintaining their automobiles well beyond their normal life span because the embargo that was imposed after the revolution in 1959 prohibited new cars from being imported from the states.

Not only were the cars banned, but also parts, so innovative owners improvised and machine shops sprung up to create replacements that kept the wheels rolling. That made sense to me several decades ago, but it seemed to me that too much time had passed now for these vintage vehicles to still be operational.

I expected we might find a few remaining relics displayed as curiosities, or perhaps used as tourist attractions. Boy, was I wrong!

Just driving into Havana from the airport became a sort of mobile auto show. For quite a while we followed a perfectly preserved Plymouth Special Deluxe Convertible that rolled off of the assembly line in 1949.

Several more examples, in various conditions, passed us by before we pulled up next to a cherry 1957 Chevy Bel Air Convertible.

This baby would send any collector into a frenzy.

We learned that the local passion for keeping aging autos on the road was not confined to the so-called Yank Tanks from the US when we passed a mid-sixties model of a Zaporozhets.

Known as a ZAZ, these little bugs were designed and built from 1958 until 1994 at a factory in the Soviet Ukraine.

Our first night, when we called a taxi to take us out for a night on the town, another Chevy Bel Air showed up, this time a 1955 edition.  Easily the coolest taxi ride of our lives.

Turns out many Cuban taxis are amazing classics. Calling all classic car enthusiasts, your carriage awaits.

Not all of the taxis are heavy metal though, some are fiberglass. These three-wheeled motorcycle motored rickshaw style buggies are called Cocotaxis, because the bodies look like coconuts.

Many of the models we spotted on our tour were not the typical Fords and Chevys.

Those were relatively easy to recognize, but it took Google for us to properly identify a 1954 Buick Century… 

…and 1958 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight that we admired.

That’s not to say that we didn’t see plenty of the more common classics like a 1959 Ford Fairlane 500…

…or a 1950 Chevrolet Fleetline along the way.

Sometimes the vehicles we encountered weren’t cars at all. While biking through the countryside we often shared the road with horse drawn carts.

Without a doubt our ultimate auto experience on the trip came when a 1957 Desoto Diplomat showed up to haul us, and our bikes, back from the beach after a day of riding through the Viñales Valley.

We had vaguely heard of a Desoto, but certainly never seen, much less ridden, in one. With some investigation we learned that DeSoto was a division of the Chrysler Corporation from 1928 to the 1961.

The Diplomat would really be a rare find on the mainland because they were produced from 1946 to 1962 only for sale in export markets outside of the United States and Canada.

Perhaps inspired by the name, we diplomatically inquired of our driver what the value of a ride like this would be.

Our decorum flew out the window when he replied, “about $50,000.”

Most likely some phrase involving the words “holy” and something else popped out of our dumbfounded mouths.

David & Veronica,

A big thank you to Backroads for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Helping Your Aging Parents Move: A GypsyNester Guide

Helping your folks downsize and move as they get on in years can be a daunting task.

The emotions of leaving a place that has been home for many years — along with that elephant in the room, aging — are heavy burdens.

We have recently assisted with three moves with varying degrees of success, and haveCONTINUE READING >> 

The GypsyNesters

Helping your folks downsize and move as they get on in years can be a daunting task. The emotions of leaving a place that has been home for many years — along with that elephant in the room, aging — are heavy burdens.

We have recently assisted with three moves with varying degrees of success, and have these helpful hints to get you through this emotionally charged time of life.

Be compassionate

We were lucky; our parents were all making moves that they wanted to make (well, at least to some degree). This did not mean that the transitions were not emotionally draining.

Remember, your parents are not only saying goodbye to a house. There are cherished memories, close neighbors and treasured keepsakes that must be left behind. They may also be feeling a sense of helplessness at the prospect of giving up independence and freedom.

There will be tension. They will squabble with each other. You may even end up in the line of fire. Be calm, patient and forgiving.

Set an agenda

It is imperative that everyone involved in the move is aware of everyone else’s time constraints. Coordinate ahead with your parents and siblings. The varying degrees of busy lives will dictate the amount of time each person will be able to dedicate to the move. Knowing these limitations ahead of time will lower tension and make the move go smoother.

Lists are essential

Ask your parents to make out lists. The asking is important in and of itself; by suggesting they take the lead, they will feel more comfortable being proactive and you, in turn, will feel less like a child being bossed around.

Assigning tasks for each helper will make the job go faster and the lists will lend insight into what is most important to your parents. Ask them for overall task lists then, as the move progresses, have them write out specific daily lists as well.

Everyone’s a hoarder 

It’s true. Your parents may call it collecting, thriftiness or any number of names, but in your eyes, it’s going to look like hoarding (just as your own attic would look to outsiders).

Help them go through their belongings and chose what to let go, then get it to Goodwill or the dumpster as quickly as possible before they change their minds.

Avoid commenting on the astounding masses of junk — it’s not junk to your parents. It’s their memories, their lives. Don’t be insensitive.

Be kind to the primary caregiver

We’ve been through the relocation process from both the position of primary family caregiver and as the caregiver’s supporting cast. Go  out of your way to help the caregiver through this trying time. Every opinion they have regarding your folks is valid and should be considered.

The caregiver was there before the move and will be there afterwards.  They will be left to deal with any problems that came up during the move after everyone else has gone home. Do your best to be helpful, deferential, and sensitive to his or her unique feelings.

Don’t be pushy

This one seems obvious, but the parent/child relationship can be tricky. You may only have a limited time to help, you may want to get as much done in a small amount of time as possible, but your folks will be overwhelmed. Be gentle.

After the move

Planning and implementation is important, but don’t forget about after the move. When setting the agenda for moving, remember to schedule time for unpacking. Leaving your folks in a new environment surrounded by boxes is not a successful move.

David & Veronica,

YOUR TURN: Did we miss anything? Do you have more suggestions? Leave a comment!

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The Ballard Inn, a California Hinterland Hideaway

This is the Santa Ynez Valley, a wondrous land of mountains and valleys, vineyards, miniature livestock, exotic birds, old west storefronts, and even some windmills to tilt at…


A big thank you to the Ballard Inn & The Gathering Table and Select Registry hotels for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Say California and images of sun drenched seashores spring to mind. We think of surfers catching a wave while the Beach Boys blast in the background.

Nothing wrong with that, but just two hours up the coast highway, and a short turn inland, we came upon an unexpected surprise, a horse of a different color so to speak. Or size to be more accurate.

This is the Santa Ynez Valley, a wondrous land of mountains and valleys, vineyards, miniature livestock, exotic birds, old west storefronts, and even some windmills to tilt at.

Located right in the middle of it all, we found a perfect lodge to base our operations, rest and rejuvenate, and sup on sustenance to gather strength for our explorations, the Ballard Inn & The Gathering Table.

The award-winning bed and breakfast, along with gourmet cuisine, made for a practically perfect weekend getaway.

After a drive through the town of Ballard, and a quick stop at its historic schoolhouse that has been in continuous service since 1883, we arrived just in time for the complimentary wine and cheese cocktail hour that happens every afternoon.

This is wine country after all, but we soon discovered so much more. Our first stop the next morning was just a stone’s throw away from the inn at the Seein’ Spots Farm.

This rescue farm provides a home to a menagerie of goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys, ducks, chickens, geese, and tortoises that have been injured or abandoned.

While these guys are all hunky-dory, it’s the miniature donkeys that are the stars of Seein’ Spots. They are specially bred to be precise mini versions of the burros we are used to seeing.

The fuzzy little fellahs (shall we call them burritos?) wander freely among the other animals and we were allowed to walk right up to them. Veronica grabbed one of the many brushes provided and proceeded to make some new friends.

There is one resident of the farm not allowed to hang out with the rest, Zeeyore the Zonkey. No matter that he looked almost as cool as his name, by all accounts when zebras breed with donkeys the resulting offspring tend to pick up much of the zebra’s ornery nature. That’s why we were only introduced to with a stout fence between us.

Just in case we hadn’t had our fill of itty-bitty animals, we found another farm featuring diminutive duplicates of large equine originals less than a mile away. Maybe there is something in the water here in the hinterlands

Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch is more of a real working ranch though, since their one and only goal is to sell these little horses. And they are horses, don’t call them ponies. Great care is taken to produce anatomically correct replicas of their full-sized cousins.

Another thing in the water around here is the ability to turn it into wine, so we could hardly spend the day without a stop at one of the local vineyards. The nearby town of Los Olivos has plenty to choose from and we popped in to the Stolpman Vineyard’s tasting room for a sip or two.

After sampling several we selected a bottle of their silky Syrah, Para Maria, which has as an added bonus we really liked. The proceeds from this particular wine go into a profit sharing program that is divided among all of the vineyard’s crew.

From Los Olivos, we drove a short stretch up the road to Los Alamos for a look at an amazing antique outlet. Along with wine, antiques are definitely big in this area, and The Depot Antique Mall is the biggest.

Housed in the last remaining station of the old Pacific Coast Railway, the sheer volume of historic memorabilia was staggering. We weren’t in the market for anything, but this was like visiting a museum of kitschy Americana.

On our way back to Ballard, we made one more quick stop at the town of Santa Ynez and felt like we had stepped back in time. The main street looks like an old West cow town right down to the horseshoes embedded in the crosswalks.

We had to hurry back for our reservation at The Gathering Table because there was no way we were going to miss this dinner. Chef Budi Kazali creatively blends Asian and French influences using locally sourced produce, seafood, and meats to deliver outstanding dishes as small plates meant to be shared.

That is right up our alley; we can’t help but share even when the plates aren’t intended to be, so we ordered several. For a starter we chose the Kabocha Squash Soup, which certainly hit the spot on an evening that had a bit of a chill in the air.

Additional dishes arrived leasurly as we dined on Pork Belly with Napa Cabbage Fondue, Wild Mushroom Risotto, Seared Spanish Octopus with squid ink, Pork & Shrimp Shumai, and a finally of salted caramel topped with crème fresh.

Everything was beyond our expectations, truly gourmet dishes served in a rustic farmhouse kitchen setting made for an evening to remember.

We awoke to another gorgeous California morning and thought, Gee, this would be a good day to see some ostriches. Lucky for us OstrichLand USA was right up the road in the incredibly quaint Danish style village of Solvang.

Even though we had visited Solvang before (see that adventure here), we couldn’t help but pause for a few well-placed windmill shots before pulling up to the bird land.

Hidden behind high wooden fences (no free viewing of the big birds) we found more ostriches and emus than we ever could have imagined. They roam the range like cattle but, just like those little doggies, they come a’runnin’ when it’s supper time.

Feeding these colossal flightless feathered fowl is the main event, and they know it. We bought a pan of giant bird chow and immediately drew a crowd. A tight grip was required to maintain control while they greedily pecked and grabbed every last pellet.

We laughed the entire time at these bird brains because their goofy heads flopping around on those spindly necks was hilarious in a three stooges sort of way. Goes to show that weird notion or not, this was a good idea.

Before leaving the Santa Ynez Valley we had one more site to see, one that contributed greatly to the history of the region, Mission Santa Inés.

For over two hundred years it has served as a spiritual center for the community, but originally provided government and protection as well while Spain spread its influence northward from Mexico. The missions were used as a way of claiming territory, so were a combination of fortress, courthouse, and church.

Santa Inés is one of twenty-one such outposts established between 1769 and 1833 in what is now California, along with scores more throughout the Southwest, and we could say that we are on a mission to see as many as possible.

Wait, is that a mission impossible?

David & Veronica,

Springtime in the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts nearly twice as many annual visitors as any other park. There must be some darn good reasons all of those people are coming, so we did a little exploring and discovered plenty… CONTINUE READING >> 

How about a fun trivia question?

What is the most visited National Park in America?

We would have guessed Yellowstone or Yosemite, or even the Grand Canyon, but it is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Believe it or not, it attracts nearly twice as many annual visitors as any other park.

There must be some darn good reasons all of those people are coming, so we did a little exploring and discovered plenty. We also found that spring is the perfect season to take in the explosion of wildflowers and greenery while the colorful slopes and foggy valleys burst back to life.

Any good exploration needs a base camp and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the perfect place to start.

This classic mountain village has stunning views at almost every turn or, for a full panorama, the top of the Space Needle can’t be beat. From its over four hundred feet high outdoor observation level the entire town spreads out in every direction beneath the alpine backdrop.

If that’s not quite high enough, there’s no better spot to check out the spectacle of colors than from the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies, as well as the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and on the Appalachian Trail.

No need to bring the climbing gear either, since Clingmans Dome Road opens up April 1st and it is only a half mile hike from the high parking area to the 6,643 foot summit, where another even more spectacular observation tower awaits.

From up here the park’s name is no mystery. The namesake haze settles into the low-lying hollows (known as hollers in these parts) and looks for all the world like smoke.

Down below, saying goodbye to winter also ushers in the return of festivals and celebrations to the mountains.

The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community gets back into full swing with their Easter Craft Show at the end of March, but the historic 8-mile loop Arts & Crafts Trail is open year ‘round. Local artisans have been whittling, painting, sewing, weaving, and carving original works in this neck of the woods for centuries, long before the trail was officially established back in 1937.

Nowadays guest craftspeople from all around the country join in sharing skills and ideas and giving folks a chance to take home a handmade heirloom.

April kicks off with the Annual Smoky Mountain Trout Tournament, the biggest trout tournament in the Smokies. Adults and kids can try their luck whether they’ve lived in these hills for generations or they’re a city slicker just passing through. Either way the fish tales are always flying about all of the whoppers that just barely got away.

Conceivably, some of those more cosmopolitan urbanites would rather indulge in a bit of the fruit of the vine. Perfect timing again, since the middle of the month brings Gatlinburg Wine Weekend featuring the Gatlinburg Wine Tour and the Gatlinburg Smoky Mountain Wine Fest.

The award-winning Tennessee wines offer something for everyone from connoisseurs to critics, life-long aficionados or rank amateurs. Luckily, we fit in there somewhere along that scale.

As April draws to a close, the Gatlinburg area blossoms with the Great Smoky Mountain Association’s Annual Wildflower Pilgrimage. For nearly seventy years many of the nation’s leading botanical experts and Appalachian wildlife authorities have been meeting here to provide demonstrations and lectures, along with instructional walks and guided hiking tours.

Scenic beauty may always be these mountains’ main attraction, but the music of this region most certainly gives it a run for its money and no one epitomizes that style better than Dolly Parton. In 1985 she took over Silver Dollar City Tennessee, renamed it Dollywood, and quickly turned it into the nation’s premier music oriented theme park.

The park opens in the middle of March and this is a great time of year to beat the crowds before the summer rush. April brings the Spring Mix Festival featuring a wide variety of musical genres from country to gospel to Classic Rock and R&B, with some of our favorites such as The Drifters, Firefall, Crystal Gayle, Amy Grant, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and the Marshall Tucker Band performing.

So maybe we under estimated when we said we found plenty of reasons. With so much to pack into every day, we were sure glad find, and that daylight savings time had returned.

That just might be the best thing about spring.

David & Veronica,
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A Look at Los Angeles Before It Was Tinsel Town

Lights, camera, action! We all know that phrase keeps the film rolling in Hollywood. However, long before the glitz and glamor of Tinsel Town made Southern California famous… CONTINUE READING >> 

“Lights, camera, action!”

We all know that phrase keeps the film rolling in Hollywood. However, long before the glitz and glamor of Tinsel Town made Southern California famous, photo-worthy moments happened here. You can still capture a few of them on camera in some of Los Angeles’ best spots for photos.

Prehistoric Los Angeles

Before it was Hollywood, LA had its share of big-time actors. Today, some of the biggest are immortalized at the La Brea Tar Pits. Yes, one of the world’s most famous fossil finds is right in the heart of the city at 5801 Wilshire Boulevard. The amazingly preserved skeletons of mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and giant sloths have been waiting patiently for their photo opportunities since being trapped in the tar up to 50,000 years ago. That’s a long time to wait for their big break!

More recently, The George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries has exhibited these stars. Now we can all get a good close-up of these famed fossil celebrities.

In our imaginations, we envisioned these creatures sinking into a quicksand pool. However, our guide explained the process of their petrifaction as something more similar to being trapped on an enormous sheet of flypaper than to languishing in a lake of liquid goop. First, an animal would get stuck. Then others would arrive, thinking they had gotten a free and easy meal. Before long a whole group, sometimes dozens, would be trapped.

Over time, the oily ooze fossilized the bones, preserving the entire scene, almost as if it was caught on film. Once the ice age and the exotic headliners that starred in it were left long in the past, a settlement sprang up just a few miles to the east of the pits.

The City of Angels

Tucked in among the freeways and skyscrapers of downtown and right across from the Union Station train depot, the tiny pedestrian lane of Olvera Street is known as the Birthplace of Los Angeles. More precisely, Don Fernando Rivera y Moncada and 44 Spanish settlers arrived from Mexico and established El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de la Porciúncula in 1781.

As a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the cobblestone block known as Olvera Street includes several of the oldest surviving structures in LA, including the Avila Adobe and Sepúlveda House. These landmarks are nestled in among quaint little shops overflowing with every kind of colorful keepsake imaginable. Flamboyant flowers, dresses, guitars, dolls, piñatas, ponchos, rugs, sombreros, and glitzy wrestling masks make a fantastic backdrop for one-of-a-kind photos.

Then, when all of that shutter snapping helps you work up an appetite, nothing tops the original taquitos sold at Cielito Lindo on the end of Olvera Street. Since this shop opened in 1934, it has spanned the timeline between old Los Angeles and new Hollywood, so it’s possible that a few movie stars have stopped by.

Could taquitos be the unknown key to Tinsel Town’s fame?

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