When you think of Cuba, what goes through your mind? Cigars? Rum? Classic American automobiles? Fidel Castro?
Well, it is all of those things – but much, much more.
I visited Cuba, with my wife, at the end of November – the end of the rainy season.
The flight was with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick to Havana – the only airline with direct services from the UK. Operating twice weekly on Mondays and Thursday offering Economy,
Premium Economy and Upper Class service – with flight time of 10 hours outbound and 9 hours 45 minutes on the return.
Our first 3 nights were spent in Havana – at the 5-star Iberostar Parque Central, situated, as the name implies, in the centre of the capital near the El Capitolio building and close to the old town. We opted for a Colonial Double room which had a balcony and amazing views over Old Havana. The hotel has two roof-top pools – each with a bar and restaurant, ideal for people-watching.
The Hotel’s Lobby Bar offers a great range of cocktails including, of course, that national staple, the Mojito!
Breakfast is a good choice of Cuban and international dishes.
Strolling through Old Havana takes you past building that have not changed in 200 years. Some of the ‘musts’ to visit are Plaza de Armas; La Cabana Fort and the cathedral of San Cristobal.
If all that walking leaves you in need of a pick-me-up, make your way to the Museum of Havana Club Rum where you can sample a variety of the rums for which Cuba is famous.
Other attractions well worth visiting are The Museum of the Revolution which comprehensively covers the revolution of 1959 that brought Fidel Castro to power. Just a short taxi ride from the hotel is the Partagas Cigar Factory where you can see those world-renowned Cuban cigars being hand rolled – and have the opportunity to purchase them (prices start at around £3.50 per cigar).
A great place for a pre-dinner drink is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba on the Malecon. And why not arrive in style in a Classic American automobile (around £11.00 each way). The Hotel was built by the American Mafia in the 1930s and was a favourite watering-hole for many celebrities – among them Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill.
It really is a great place at the end of a busy day’s sightseeing to sit and sip a cocktail while enjoying fantastic views over the Straits of Florida.
If you fancy some real Cuban cuisine, which is much better than some guide books imply, visit Havana Gourmet – just a short walk from Parque Central – where the signature dish is fresh whole lobster for just £12.50 including side dishes – mouth-wateringly delicious!
After an enjoyably hectic 3 nights in Havana we took a scenic 2 ½ trip by road – following the Atlantic shoreline and the Central Mountain Ridge, to the beach resort of Varadero – which sits on a 20 km peninsula with pristine white sand beaches.
Our hotel here for the next 7 nights was the 5-star all-inclusive Iberostar Varadero right on the beach at the seaward end of the peninsula. The resort has 386 rooms spread over consists of 11 buildings of typical Cuban architecture,
The resort’s five restaurants offer an incredible range of cuisines. Ambrosio is a buffet restaurant, while La Parilla offers a buffet during the day and an a la carte menu of international and Cuban, meat and seafood dishes in the evening. Manzoku serves Japanese and Asian dishes and La Dorada is traditionally Mediterranean (the Surf n’Turf is a must). La Parilla, Manzoku and La Dorada ,each of which can be visited once during a week’s stay, must be prebooked. Finally, El Bohio is ideal for a casual lunch – offering burgers, pizzas, hot dogs and salads.
For active types windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, snorkeling and diving trips are all available from the hotel’s beautiful sandy beach. And if that all sounds a bit too much – just laze on a sunbed and listen to the waves gently lapping the shore.
But of course, there is a great deal more to Cuba than Havana and beaches.
We took two organised excursions from Varadero. The first (not for the faint-hearted) took in the three colonial cities of Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. A 650 km trip departing at 7 am and getting back to the hotel at 10 pm! But it was well worthwhile – taking in Che Guevara’s Monument and Mausoleum. Lunch in the historic centre of Cienfuegos and historic Trinidad with its beautiful cobbled streets and pastel-coloured buildings.
Our second, and more relaxing excursion, was to the Guama wetlands and The Bay of Pigs. A pleasant tour through the Cuban countryside and along some of the quieter beaches where we had the opportunity to swim or snorkel.
To those thinking of Cuba ( and I would recommend that you do so before the improving relations between it and the USA open it up to mass tourism) I would only say this – don’t expect to find its resorts as modern and slick as those in the rest of the Caribbean or Mexico.
You won’t find Coca-cola or any of the hundreds of American fast-food chains. Its road network is limited – a journey can take three times longer than a journey of similar length in the UK.
Cuba is (for the moment anyway) locked in a 1950’s time warp. – where you can still see Classic American Cars from that era on almost every street.
Richard Lucas – Senior Travel Consultant
We travelled with Etihad via Abu Dhabi to Calicut Airport