Two weeks by a pool relaxing sounds great; but there's only so much you can take of the same canteen. So we scrapped our holiday mid-way, hired a car and ended up living with the locals
Don’t get me wrong. All inclusive holidays serve a purpose. A week away being pampered without lifting a finger, drinking from plastic cups and nodding to "Bazza" and "Shazza" from down the road is fine if that’s what you're after. But not in Cuba. Just minutes from your sun lounger you won’t be able to ignore the unique cultural feast which lies further down the road.
Somehow though I’d booked an all inclusive 4* hotel on Cayo Coco, Cuba’s north coast holiday island, where no Cubans are actually allowed entry. Within two days we were bored of the offers of ‘genuine tours to Cuban villages’ and the like and decided we needed to make a break for it.
Our escape plan seemed perfect, except that public transport in Cuba is pretty much non-existent. For a couple who don’t have a car at home and usually rely heavily on public transport in every country we visit (Singapore’s MRT – brilliant! Bus from Marseille airport to Aix en Provence - fantastic! I digress but you get the idea), the lack of a cheap and easy getaway from the all inclusive crowd caused us mild panic.
Luckily the Cuban government, always on the lookout to make as much money from western tourists as possible, offered one possible solution. Government tourist-priced car hire! We were warned by the rep from the holiday company that we were mad to even contemplate car hire; that Cuban roads were impossible to navigate and the car would probably get stolen, but clearly she had never left the car park of the hotel.
The car was £50 per day which we brought down to £40 by negotiating seven days of rental and they even threw in a free road map. What is note-worthy about driving in Cuba is the frequent appearance of police cars and with no speed limit signs it’s worth staying at a steady pace and admiring the old 1950’s American motors.
One of our pit-stops on the way to our chosen destination of Trinidad was the town of Sancti Spiritus. A bustling market town with open food stalls, a pretty town square, a distinct lack of tourists and a decidedly relaxed vibe. Only an hour and a half from the southern coast and Trinidad itself, definitely worth a visit but not an over-night stop.
After a six hour drive we arrived in the world renowned city of Trinidad and decided to stay in a casa particulare (local person’s house) for a glimpse of the real Cuba. As well as a bed for the night, the owners of these houses will also offer to cook for you. The food is never going to be a la carte, but with the limited ingredients they do have they will feed you until you stop eating and it will be fresh and served with a smile and lots of questions about life in the west.
It is worth negotiating a fixed price before you agree to stay at a casa particulare as the price can go up and change throughout the stay. A good, clean central casa is Araceli Reboso Miranda on Lino Perez, where we stayed; the house had a delightful roof-top balcony and costs £18 for a room with breakfast. This house was also just a two-minute walk to one of the city’s cigar factories; well worth a peep through the windows at the talented Cubans rolling by hand (the factory is closed to the public).
Trinidad comes alive at night, and everyone makes their way up to the world famous Casa de la Musica. This delightful music venue is on the top of the hill in central Trinidad and if you make it up the steps after your evening meal you’ll get a great view of the sun-setting over the city, with cheap rum-based cocktails and dancing till late into the night. For a more traditional night you should check out the Bar Colonial on Maceo Road, which re-creates the late 1800s with engravings and old bottles lined up behind the bar.
Just 7km out of central Trinidad is Trinidad Del Mar. Here casa particulares disappear and the big government-run hotels rule the coast-line. Whereas some are incredibly westernised, we found one with real Cuban charm - the Hotel Brisas Trinidad Del Mar - which from £76 a night all inclusive, allows you to sip mojitos with views of the ocean and the lush green mountains of Escambray as a backdrop. The beach here really is fantastic, so much clearer and warmer than the north coast and much safer for kids with smaller waves and a hotel lifeguard. There are also pedaloes and windsurfers to hire if you feel like getting out on the sea after a night of mojito consumption.
While staying back in town we treated ourselves for a couple of nights at the 5* Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad, this is one place you’re sure to be looked after where opulence and tradition combine (a rarity in Cuba). They have wireless internet and fresh fish and crab caught daily, again though, how the Cubans manage not to turn this into something delicious amazes me. Girls (and maybe men if you’re into that sort of thing) have beauty treatments available from as little as £2 to cure the feet after walking the city's cobbled streets. A double bedroom starts from £90 in high season and is cheaper at other times of the year.
From our initial sight of "Bazza" and "Shazza" arriving on Cayo Coco, Trinidad and our travels through the mid part of Cuba could not have been more contrasting. The energetic Cuban positivity, the brightly-coloured architecturally sensational buildings, and the smell of sweet cigar tobacco all paint a stark contrast to any other city on earth. If you’re looking for the Havana experience of salsa dance, rum and Cuban eccentricity but you’re put off by tales of crime and chaos, Trinidad and the central southern coast offer everything you are looking for.