Cuba, after 50

About six years ago, I saw a "60 Minutes" story by Anderson Cooper, where he visited the Gardens of the Queen, a marine sanctuary about 65 miles off the southern coast of Cuba. As a diver, I was impressed that Cuba has such a pristine jewel and that they'd cared for it so well. It immediately went on my list of dive destinations.

When President Obama loosened restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, I decided to plan a 14-day trip to include this dive destination as a 50th birthday gift to myself. So last January, I found myself departing Jucaro, Cuba, aboard the Halcon, a live-aboard dive boat, for seven days.

Though the diving was excellent (with more sharks than I'd ever seen), my time on land, spent in and around Havana, was every bit as interesting and exciting. Via Airbnb, I had two different host families who were happy to share their thoughts on life in Cuba, both before and after the revolution. I found the Cuban people to be warm and welcoming and very curious about life in the U.S. I don't know what the future holds for Cuban-American relations, so I'm glad I went when I did. -- Andrew Smoley, Minneapolis

Troll Fjord at Midnight

My husband and I were sailing up the beautiful fjord-filled coast of Norway. On June 18, we crossed the Arctic Circle — 24 hours of daylight. That evening, we slipped through narrow Raftsund Strait, with islands ahead that looked impenetrable. But then, we made a turn into small, tranquil Troll Fjord, 1¼ miles long and 110 yards wide at its mouth. All was quietness. Our entry started at 11:15 p.m.; it was still light enough to easily take photos of the narrow fjord with its lush green walls. Under the midnight sun, all was calm and serene — a magical moment. When we reached the end of the fjord, our ship had to do the "impossible" — turn around. We were certain the bow would scrape the walls. Slowly, slowly we turned. As we turned, we sipped some "troll grog" on the aft deck, drinking in the beauty. It was nearing 1 a.m. — and still dusky daylight.

Dorothy Waddingham Wenzel, Bloomington

Sibling unity in the Galapagos

This January my brother celebrated his 70th birthday. With the blessing from each of our spouses, the two of us, who had long had the Galápagos Islands on our bucket lists, embarked on a five-day adventure to see the giant tortoises up close. We had never vacationed with just each other before. It was even better than what we had hoped! The days were filled with hiking, kayaking and snorkeling and lots of laughter, not to mention excellent, tasty Ecuadorean food. It was truly a wonderful experience. Making memories is far more priceless than anything money can buy.

Harriette Krasnoff, Maple Grove

Sweet surprises on 'Gilligan's Island'

We took a trip to Puerto Rico. We had rented a car and decided to see the south side of the island. We drove to Guanica and stayed at a beautiful resort. We took a day trip out to a little-known place, officially named Cayo Aurora, but nicknamed Gilligan's Island. It is a tiny island that is part of the Biosphere Reserve of Guanica. The island is a 10-minute boat ride from the mainland. We discovered beautiful mangrove trees growing up in the crystal clear water. We sunbathed, explored and snorkeled. Upon our return to the resort, we discovered a small building down the road and to our surprise, it was a restaurant. We sat down to a meal of huge shrimp and fish. It was delicious and almost free. We could not believe our luck. The bonus was the feral kitten that decided to hang out with us. We almost had to take him home.

Cindy Stoewer, Minneapolis

Off-season in Barcelona

Last January, my family traded Mexican beaches for cool, classy Barcelona, Spain. Temperatures in this northeastern coastal Spanish city were in the refreshing 50s and 60s. Better yet, we discovered the charm of those magical words: "off-season."

We rented a cozy apartment (through Airbnb) just off Barcelona's famous La Rambla promenade. Walking La Rambla was an intense experience — street buskers, souvenir booths and even a Marilyn Monroe impersonator waving from the balcony of the Erotic Museum. Then there's Barcelona's lively food scene of wine and tapas!

The genius of Antoni Gaudi — the brilliant architect — is reason enough to visit this city. Even though the Sagrada Familia cathedral is still under construction, one still marvels at its light-filled glory and soaring architecture. We bought an affordable two-day city pass allowing us to hop on and off tour buses throughout the city and visit Parque Guell, the '92 Olympics Stadium, the Catalonian National Museum of Art and the Montjuic fortress. Best thing: few crowds! Off-season is the best season for exploring Barcelona.

Barbara DeGroot, Minnetonka

Climbing Two peaks in Nepal

Out of 65 years of travel adventures, my highlight is climbing Gokyo Ri and then Kala Pattar, both about 17,000 to 18,000 feet, on a four-week trek while living in Nepal. I am an academic rather than an athlete, so the trip involved a down jacket, pants, booties, hat and gloves with elevation gains of no more than 1,500 feet a day above Namche Bazaar to avoid altitude sickness. Near the summits, one step upward is followed by three deep breaths, then another step, seemingly forever. The panorama is overwhelming, the Himalayan Mountain range captured one click at a time by a camera. Mount Everest, elevation 29,000 feet, is to the right of center.

A hot shower provided momentary cleanliness when returning to Namche Bazaar in between the two ascents. And another hot shower after leaving Lukla by plane, before going out to Boris' Yak & Yeti Restaurant, was a wonderful relief at the end of the journey.

Vivian Green, Longville, Minn.

Musical Magic in the City of Lights

Our shadows stretched long as my husband and I walked under the Eiffel Tower, pausing to listen to live music of all kinds that filled the Champ de Mars. It was the summer solstice, the sun was setting, and Paris was celebrating its Fête de la Musique — an annual citywide festival that encourages musicians of all genres to perform in the streets for free.

As night fell we joined crowds of revelers meandering through neighborhoods, discovering one musical enclave after the next. We stopped to listen to a Scandinavian choir singing on the steps of a church and a solo guitarist in the doorway of a closed shop, and we found the Paris Gay Men's Choir singing a capella under a bridge (a spot I assumed they chose for the echo-y acoustics). We finished the night dancing to a band wedged into a small square, covering American pop music from the 1980s.

Strolling back to our apartment well after midnight, we agreed that this once-a-year, joyful, musical fête made our visit to the lovely City of Lights extraordinary.

Susan Brauer, Minneapolis

Bridging faiths in Jerusalem

I stayed at the Ecce Homo Guesthouse on Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem in 2009. It's a 54-room facility, with a third-floor balcony that features a panoramic view of Jerusalem — centering on the Temple Mount with its golden dome.

A Palestinian leader, Magi, gave 12 Catholic priests and nuns and me a tour of this third holiest site for Muslims. Sister Rosalie, director of a scripture school at Ecce Homo, is a good friend of Magi's, and they trust each other. These Sisters of Sion raise money for many Arab causes, including feeding the poor in Gaza and supporting the only Palestinian University in Israel — Bethlehem U. The Sisters believe that education and good future Palestinian leaders go hand in hand.

After the tour, Sister Rosalie greeted an old friend of hers on the street — an elfish and gray-bearded sufi, or Muslim mystic holy man. Sufis deeply believe in respecting other faiths and cultivating fellowship between peoples. The nuns at Ecce Homo see Palestinians as having great family loyalty, tenacity, hope and beliefs.

Dennis Stern

Warming the soul in Sedona

My husband and I were not drawn to Sedona, Ariz., in April 2014 for its purported energy vortexes, which some say are powerful enough to prompt spiritual development. Instead, after we stayed close to home that brutal winter to help care for my parents at their journeys' end, Arizona's sunshine and warmth called to my weary soul.

Two days after my second parent died, we were in Sedona. While there is much to enjoy about this desert town, I was especially taken by our hike through its West Fork Trail. Walking through the pine forests within the trail's steep canyon walls seemed to put life in perspective. And the burgeoning green life that appeared against the centuries-old rock served as vivid and welcome reminders that life reliably follows death.

One night of this sojourn, I was transported in a dream to my father's bedside. "Where am I?" he asked without opening his eyes. I asked him if he was in heaven. "I don't know," he answered, "but I know God is in me." His revelation startled me awake that night. It has also opened me up to the possibility that more is happening in Sedona than meets the eye.

Cory Gideon Gunderson, Lakeville