• Edward Piegza and local guides in Cuba

    The Amigos Effect: Why I Keep Going Back to Cuba

    <p>In a million years, I couldn’t have predicted how much Cuba would mean to me. When we began the long slog to become one of the earliest companies to get U.S. government approval for travel to Cuba, I didn’t have a personal connection. My closest brush with the island came from the stories my in-laws told about their visits decades before I ever met them. It was a surprise to me that my connections with Cuba would turn into an all-out mission to help Americans see Cuba at this inflection point in history.</p> <p>What I now think of as The Amigos Effect—the benefits of deep, sustained and unselfish friendships with the Cuban people—means that <a href="https://goo.gl/5J7qsG" target="_blank">Classic Journeys can offer a $1,000 savings per person</a> on every trip to Cuba until March 17, 2017. With friends like ours, we’re able to make Cuba more affordable even though we have hands down the <a href="https://goo.gl/JXPUDf" target="_blank">best guides</a>, <a href="https://goo.gl/s3itWf" target="_blank">best hotels </a>and best interpersonal experiences of any company that you may consider for your visit.<br><br><img alt="Bar in Cuba" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m8c" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>Gaining access to Cuba started for me as a business proposition. My company, Classic Journeys, is built around the thrill of immersive cultural travel. Being part of the movement to open up Cuba and explore life there was a natural fit. <a href="https://goo.gl/dzYoHn" target="_blank">Wherever we go on Classic Journeys</a>, we’re all about meeting the local people, and the stated objective of the U.S. government was to establish people-to-people connections between Americans and Cubans. It was a match made in heaven.<br> </p> <p>It was also obvious from the get-go that we needed feet on the ground if we were going to succeed. Though the country now permits some private enterprise, government Bureaucracy with a Capital B is impossible to avoid. Phone calls get through better now than they used to. Emails have always been a little hit or miss. Face time (the kind with actual people in the same room) has been our operative mode from the start. Bureaucrats are people too. Their jobs are to toe the line, but they are not immune to people who find judicious ways to make their work easier. We’ve always sought to do that. The biggest bonus was that our measured approach to officialdom put us in connection with the everyday people of Cuba. At first, overwhelmed by demand, the authorities directed visitors to the limited organizations and places that could handle the traffic. In a typical scene, a stoic director of such-and-such a community project stood beside a translator who dutifully relayed the party line on tobacco production, education policy, or whatever topic was at-hand. We’re told that plenty of that still happens, but we’ve moved on!<br><br><img alt="School children in Cuba" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m91" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>On our repeated visits we kept scratching at the surface. The directors warmed up. They introduced us to the tobacco farmers who gave us their own versions of the quota system. We focused on becoming a regular, respectful and responsive presence in their lives. The teacher in a rural school realized we didn’t want to be just spectators in her third-grade classroom, but that we wanted to hang out for a while with her and her students. Most importantly, <a href="https://goo.gl/JXPUDf" target="_blank">our local Cuban guides</a>—truly some of the most exceptional pros you will ever meet—saw that Classic Journeys and our guests were consistently sincere in our desire to really understand their lives. That’s opened doors that I never even dreamed of on my first few trips. These days, our amigos are free with their time and enthusiasm. There’s nothing mechanical about how our favorite salsa teachers use their eyes and their smiles to get you moving. (My own hips remain resistant to the beat, but that doesn’t stop them from trying!) When we open the door to the workshop where our friends Julio and Nidialys operate Cuba’s premier classic car-restoration business, the reception always blows us away. You instantly realize that they couldn’t be happier to see us all. It’s a your-friends-are-my-friends moment, a greeting that is completely unlike the professional greetings you’ve probably received at plenty of touristic spots.</p> <p><br>Beyond the intimate entrée we get into Cuban life, our friendships have yielded some terrific advantages that are crucial to the <a href="https://goo.gl/dzYoHn" target="_blank">value you get from traveling with Classic Journeys.</a> For instance, we’re regular customers at some of the country’s best paladars. These privately owned restaurants are probably the greatest free-enterprise success story in these parts. As regulars, we’re never shut out, and you might notice that we’re seated at some of the best tables.<br><br><img alt="Friends at dinner in Cuba" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m8r" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>You may have read about the scarcity of top-level accommodations in Cuba. The stories are true. Many properties are, to put it gently, rudimentary. Demand for the best of the best is stratospheric. Fortunately, <a href="https://goo.gl/s3itWf" target="_blank">we’ve been staying at many of those preferred hotels for years now</a>. A Classic Journeys trademark (and this is true all over the world, not just in Cuba) is our fair, above-board relationships with hoteliers. Behind the scenes, we put a tremendous amount of energy into respectful business practices that aren’t always the norm. While other companies struggle to find adequate space, we can confirm access to great accommodations.</p> <p><br>And all of this is why I keep going back to Cuba. First, because the friendships that have blossomed there are so satisfying and the new ones are a constant delight. To walk into Mailin’s paladar in Trinidad and see her face light up in recognition before she smothers me with a hug is a gift beyond words. But, as I said at the start, the other terrific benefit is that these friendships allow us to fulfill a mission that we hold near and dear. <a href="https://goo.gl/5J7qsG" target="_blank">We can show you the Cuba we love </a>at an extremely important moment in history…we can do it in style…and we can offer you exceptional value at reasonable cost.</p> <p>After you compare your options, I hope you will allow <a href="https://goo.gl/5J7qsG" target="_blank">Classic Journeys to show you the Cuba we know and love</a>. Because that’s what amigos are for.<br><br><img alt="Woman riding in classic car in Cuba with arms in the air" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m8w" style="height: 344px; width: 500px;"></img></p>

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  • Woman with arms out on cliff

    How to get 97.15 out of 100 points in the Travel + Leisure World's Best Survey

    <h3><b><i>WHAT DO YOU DO FIRST WHEN TRAVEL + LEISURE CALLS TO TELL YOU THAT YOU’VE BEEN VOTED A WORLD’S BEST TOUR OPERATOR FOR THE 10TH YEAR?</i></b></h3> <p>You’d be right if you say there are high-fives, big smiles and some instant social media action. But right on the heels of that, I went immediately to the scoring results to see how many points the voters awarded us.</p> <p>For 2016, we scored 97.15 out of 100 – our highest numbers to date. The thing is, the Travel + Leisure rankings aren’t just a popularity contest where they count votes. If you’ve ever participated in the process, you may remember that they asked you to rank companies you’ve traveled with on six parameters: value, destinations, guides, 5-star lodgings, cuisine and activities. <br><br><img alt="Whitewater rafting" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7lF&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qsQ" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>I believe we score so well because we handcraft every Classic Journey with the goal to provide every guest a trip of a lifetime. I know – “handcrafted” is a word you’re more accustomed to associating with Etsy.com or the pale ale at your local brewpub. But it’s exactly the right word to explain our hands-on approach to travel, and it’s why our trips always feel personal and never cookie-cutter.</p> <p>The easy intimacy that our <a href="https://goo.gl/3jrfYj" target="_blank">fulltime local guides</a> have with our small groups is awesome to see. There’s an openness and cordiality that’s not at all typical of group travel. No question is off limits and friendships are formed. The big difference is that all of our guides live where they work. Many of them have been part of the Classic Journeys family for 20 years.<br><br><img alt="Classic Journeys guide" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7lF&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qsV" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>Even in well-traveled <a href="https://goo.gl/ZBguJn" target="_blank">destinations</a> like the Galápagos, Cuba or Tuscany, we start by asking, “How can we give this our own spin?” We build around the cultural experiences so that they are the focus. And we can’t keep our hands off: we constantly tweak to add a just-discovered walk or a new restaurant that’s a hit with the locals.</p> <p>Everywhere we go, we pull up to the <a href="https://goo.gl/tpPYBp" target="_blank">lodgings</a> that other travelers only wish they were staying in. As far as we’re concerned, it’s the best – and ONLY – way to go! Cookie-cutter doesn’t cut it for me. Give me a farmhouse/monastery/Palazzo-turned hotel any day. If it boasts a string of five stars, I’m there. From Asia to South America to Europe and plenty of spots in between, we stay in a lot of World’s Best hotels. <br><br><img alt="Hotel Monasterio, Peru" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7lF&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qsf" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>We love to eat—and to eat very well. We can be just as happy grazing in street food stalls as putting on our best manners at a Michelin-starred temple of <a href="https://goo.gl/Zgi4pA" target="_blank">cuisine</a>. For us, food is never an afterthought. We intend for every meal on a Classic Journey to be a culinary AND cultural treat that connects you to local life in the most fundamental way there is.</p> <p>As travelers, we’re not very good spectators. We’re a lot happier being “in the game”. That means we learn to roll spring rolls instead of just eating them. We sway through a salsa lesson in Havana. We hunt truffles in Italy. The ultimate expression of our “dive in” approach is our multi-sport Family Journeys. And all of the <a href="https://goo.gl/teRp7y" target="_blank">activities</a> you read about in our itineraries are included at no additional cost—a big advantage over other companies that hit you with up-charges.<br><br><img alt="Zip lining in Costa Rica" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7lF&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qsp" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>In the end, it’s all about <a href="https://goo.gl/dCBMYb" target="_blank">value.</a> Your vacation time is really precious, and we want you to feel like your trip was the best investment you ever made. That means that we have to exceed our promises…and do it at a price that makes sense. I’m really proud of how well we do that. A lot of other companies charge a premium of 20% to 40% over Classic Journeys for trips that you would logically compare to ours.</p> <p>So, yes – I’m thrilled that we scored 97.15 this year. I’m even happier that it’s our highest score ever. It proves to me that we’re upping our game and that our guests can really feel and appreciate all of the personal effort we put into every Classic Journey. Now to figure out how to get those last 2.85 points…</p> <h3><a href="https://goo.gl/Fq5sEh" target="_blank">IF YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW WE’RE GOING TO TOP THAT, WELL – SCOUT OUR 82 REGIONS AROUND THE WORLD FOR YOUR NEXT DESTINATION OR REQUEST A CATALOG.</a></h3>

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  • Italian Lakes view

    "My review of the Italian Lakes Tour."

    <p>Did you ever get home from a trip bubbling over with the urge to tell everybody about it? Our guest Bill Carter did, and we’re thrilled that he shared his official Italian Lake District Tour Review with us. Instead of using our words to describe Orta, Lake Como, Lugano and the rest, let me turn it over to Bill with special thanks to him for sharing his enthusiasm!</p> <p>– Edward Piegza, President and Founder</p> <p>Edward,</p> <p>I thought I would send you a note to tell you what a great time we had on our Italian Lake Region tour with Classic Journeys. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say it was incredible.</p> <p>We have come to fully enjoy and appreciate Classic Journeys’ singular approach to walking tours with this being most of the group’s third tour with your company. We like the small, intimate groups rather than lots of people….excellent accommodations and food, wonderful sights and events and outstanding guides. So, when you offered to put together a trip for our traveling group, we jumped at it.<br><br><img alt="Italian Lakes" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7nT&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002q7w" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>Although the entire Lake Region tour was wonderful, there were a few things that made it spectacular.</p> <p>1. <b>Orta</b> – Although the visit to all four lakes were great and inspiring, Bellagio and Orta were the best…but Orta is a gem and one we would not have found on our own. The real lake region…. no tourists, no Hermes, no Louis Vuitton, no side shows…. just beauty, history, art and culture around every corner… a real treasure.</p> <p>2. <b>The local guides</b> – Whether arranged by Giampiero or Classic Journeys, they were truly outstanding… Bellagio, Lugano, Orta. We had two other guides that had to come from the enterprises we were visiting and the difference was so obvious. Our guides were so much better, so much more conversant, spontaneous, knowledgeable, sensitive, friendly and positive. They made us feel a part of their “home”, showed us things mere tourists never saw, things we would have totally missed, e.g. the little church with the “Last Supper”.</p> <p>3. <b>The latitude that Giampiero had with his budget</b> to do special things for and with the group….it is a winner!! Giampiero had flexibility with his budget and could consequently surprise us with treats and special events specifically tailored to the group. We were lucky enough to be in Bellagio on the day of their local, old style boat races and Giampiero had us meet (I am sure by no accident) the Bellagio two-man crew and then arranged a private boat for us to have front row seats and a glass of wine on the lake at the race. We totally got into it… hooting and yelling and cheering the Bellagio team to an “Italian” victory – a description the group will understand.</p> <p>4. <b>And the best was Giampiero</b>….. The best guide in all of Italy if not Europe. He challenged, in the best way, our minds and our bodies every day. He felt the pace of the group and every individual and catered to our needs and wants. We never lacked for interesting things and entertainment and he made us feel so at home in every way. He is 5-star and an absolute winner for Classic Journeys. His enthusiasm and energy are so catching.<br><br><img alt="Giampiero" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7nT&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002q7r" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>It was a great trip and we will probably start planning another with you. Please thank Priscila for helping us put it all together.</p> <p>Bill Carter</p> <p><i>Our 7-day/6-night <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/italianlakes/" target="_blank">Italian Lake District tour</a> includes visits to Bellagio on the banks of Lake Como, Mont Bre overlooking Lake Lugano in Switzerland, Lake Orta, and more. </i></p>

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