Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Nadia Eckhardt has been one of Zegrahm’s most popular expedition leaders since she started working for the company in 1992.
Her outdoor adventures have taken her all around the world, from Africa and Antarctica to Australia and Indonesia. But Cuba has had a special place in her heart ever since her first visit back in 1999.
Here, she discusses her early travel experiences, her favorite places in Cuba, and what Zegrahm guests can expect on her upcoming Circumnavigation of Cuba expedition.
Can you talk about when and why you developed your passion for outdoor adventure?
I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, spending time with my family hiking Table Mountain, Lions Head, and more. There was lots of swimming and scuba diving. My interest in travel started after hearing about my mom’s experiences traveling to Europe, Asia, and the US as a buyer for a large clothing firm.
I was fortunate to land a job in my early 20s as a cruise hostess, traveling the Indian Ocean and eventually the Mediterranean. Our Cruise Director would stand on the gangway as we embarked 1,000 guests and say, “I wish I was back on a small expedition vessel in Antarctica or snorkeling in the South Pacific!” Eventually she hired me: I was her first shopkeeper on board the little red ship, the Society Explorer.
Soon after boarding my first expedition vessel, I learned to drive a Zodiac. I had the pleasure of visiting Easter Island, South Georgia, and the Amazon. A few years later I was promoted to Cruise Director, and have never looked back! I was hooked on adventure.
When was your first visit to Cuba, and what were the initial impressions you had of the country?
I first visited Cuba with a French company on a small expedition vessel in 1999. I absolutely loved the people there, who were so warm and welcoming and fascinated with this expedition cruise concept.
We would come ashore in Zodiacs, and the entire community would come out to meet us! There was magical music on every street corner, and they wanted us to come and visit them in their homes.
There were not many visitors, and certainly not many vessels exploring Cuba at the time. I was struck by the kindness of the people of all ages, the beauty underwater, and even the fine architecture in Havana and Trinidad.
Do you have any favorite memories of your time in Cuba that you can share?
One of my most memorable experiences happened 18 years ago. I was traveling with my mom on our elegant expedition vessel, and we would dash ashore and listen to jazz in the cafés and sample fine foods.
We loved exploring the handicraft and outdoor markets and negotiating with the Cubans. We would spend time out on deck at sunset as we sailed on to our next port.
We were warmly welcomed in Santiago de Cuba, where we spent an overnight and dined ashore. The Cuban food was amazing, and we found a rooftop restaurant with live music and views right across the city. That trip will always stick out in my mind!
How has the island changed since then?
To be honest, not all that much has really changed. That’s part of what makes Cuba so special! The classic cars are still being used daily, and the people are still warm and welcoming.
There are certainly more visitors over the last few years, especially from the US. But I still say that now is the time for Cuba! The country still has that same feel of going back in time 50 years or more. It’s like walking back into the past!
I think most Americans already know about the beauty and culture of Havana. But what lesser-known cities/sites in Cuba would you recommend people visit?
Cienfuegos is definitely a must-visit! It’s known as “the Pearl of the South,” and the colonial architecture is spectacular. No other place in the Caribbean contains such an incredible collection of neoclassic structures.
This is where we’re often able to see a choir performance on the Parque Jose Marti Square before taking a stroll along the Promenade. There’s also a lovely Botanical Garden just outside of Cienfuegos that’s well worth visiting.
Viñales is also not to be missed. It is a rural town located a few hours from Havana in Western Cuba, and offers the perfect combination of natural beauty and traditional Cuban culture. It’s well known for its tobacco farms and the distinctive limestone hills of the Valle de Viñales.
Zegrahm is one of the few companies offering small-ship cruises of Cuba. How does that experience differ from land-based Cuba tours?
It makes such a difference being able to board a Zegrahm expedition vessel in Cuba, unpack once, and see most of the highlights of Cuba without checking in and out of hotels every few nights. We’re able to stay in port for a night or sail later in the evening in order to enjoy dinner and music ashore. Then we wake up the next day in a different port!
Zegrahm guests are also fortunate in that we’re able to take on board local Cuban guides from Havana. These are excellent Cuban national guides, who stay with guests on board each evening and go ashore on tours exploring each day.
Also, the luxury and comfort of a Zegrahm Expedition vessel is really special, with evening recaps and briefings, fine cuisine, and cocktails in our own private lounge.
Can you talk about some of the more memorable natural attractions people can see during the Circumnavigation of Cuba cruise?
Valle de Viñales is without a doubt one of the highlights: We visit it the day prior to boarding the Circumnavigation of Cuba voyage. I also love snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs, and then swimming in a cenote that’s just 100 meters away!
We have time to explore a pristine white sandy beach in Maria La Gorda, with Zodiacs transferring guests to and from the shore. A huge highlight there is going out in search of the beautiful bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest.
But my favorite is probably enjoying a coffee, or hiking, in Topes de Collante, a nature reserve way up in the mountains above Trinidad.
Other than your job, what is it that keeps you coming back to Cuba over and over again? What makes it unique from other Latin American and Caribbean destinations?
I love returning to Cuba each year to spend time with the people, sample fine Cuban food, and listen to music in the bars and cafes in Trinidad.
My highlight each time I return is taking a drive in a convertible Oldsmobile along the Malecón, with a stop at John Lennon Park in the Vedado region of Havana!
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.