Relax by the pool of an all-inclusive hotel, take a dip in the warm turquoise Caribbean or explore the streets of one of the world's finest colonial cities. Nowhere quite beats that Cuban rhythm
Think of lazy days lounging on coral-white beaches with the warm, turquoise Caribbean lapping the palm-lined shore, and the chances are Cuba won’t immediately spring to mind. However, if you want to combine that dream beach holiday with a chance to explore the cultural delights of one of the world’s best historic cities, Cuba and its capital Havana take some beating.
If you’re used to fast-food outlets or, at the other extreme, exquisite restaurants and fine dining, Cuba is not for you. Nor will it appeal to those who want shops full of the latest designer gear. While Key West in the United States is just 100 miles or so across the Straits of Florida, Cuba’s relationship with America is pretty strained on account of its communist rulers. That means there is not a single Ronald McDonald Golden Arch or a Colonel Sanders logo to be seen anywhere. In 1962, America imposed a commercial, economic and financial embargo on Castro’s communist government – and that restriction remains in place. While it does, life is likely to remain pretty tough for the average Cuban.
Not that poverty and a lack of opportunity prevent the island’s 11 million inhabitants from welcoming visitors with open arms. The majority are only too willing to tell any visitor prepared to listen all about their free health service and excellent education system. However, many remain suspicious of America, though they clearly hope President Obama will further relax the crippling embargo and help their economy improve.
Fidel Castro, who has now stood down in favour of his brother Raul Castro, is hardly mentioned – at least not openly. However, Ernesto Che Guevara, despite being of Argentinean descent, is held in almost God-like reverence. His image is everywhere and he remains a national hero, despite the fact he left Cuba in 1966 to take his revolutionary ideals to Bolivia, where he was eventually captured and executed in 1967.
Visiting Havana – or La Habana, to give it its correct title –is like stepping back in time. Somehow, the world’s best mechanics manage to keep the classic cars of the 1950s and early 60s going and the streets are a pleasure to walk down, with just the odd Chevrolet or T-Bird trundling past.
The city, founded in the early 16th century on the west side of Havana Bay, is split into two distinct parts: Old Habana and the new, more modern city. Old Habana is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and many of the buildings are slowly being restored to their former glory.
Eating out is challenging, as the trade embargo means few luxury food items make it to the tables of the state-owned restaurants – and those who manage these places are hardly inspired to go all-out to impress. Bodeguita del Medio, near the cathedral at Calle Empedrado 206, is probably one of the best – though it is a bit more expensive than many others, probably due to the fact Hemingway and countless other visiting artists, writers and actors have stopped by since it first opened in 1942. The menu is traditional Cuban, with pork, fish and rice dishes dominating the menu. The little restaurant and bar is certainly atmospheric, and holds the distinction of being the bar where the first Mojito cocktail was mixed.
There are also plenty of paladares, private restaurants that can seat, by law, no more than 12 people. These “businesses”, usually in a the lounge of a family home, are permitted by the government, though what goes on the menu is still restricted. For instance, paladares are not allowed to sell beef dishes, as these are reserved for state-owned restaurants.
No visit to Havana is complete without taking in a show at the Tropicana. The open-air venue has been putting on nightly cabaret shows since 1939 and features amazing costumes, great dancers, singers, incredible contortionists and acrobats. The shows are awe-inspiring – if perhaps a bit long at around three hours.
Havana hotels are a bit hit-and-miss, being wholly or partly state-owned. The Hotel Presidente, at Esquina Avda de los Presidentes Plaza de la Revolución, is pretty reasonable and ideally located to explore the city. Rooms are clean and the buffet-style restaurant serves good hot food and a wide range of Cuban sweets.
A three-hour drive from Havana lies the Varadero peninsula, along which most of Cuba’s best all-inclusive hotels can be found. The Iberostar Varadero (see Kevin recommends, top left) has an advantage as, being half state- and half Spanish-owned, it has its own laundry service on site and seems to be able to secure better ingredients for the vast kitchens. This means the food on offer is of a far superior quality, with much more variety than you will find at other Varadero hotels.
There are also two à la carte restaurants, including one oriental one at which chefs cook in front of diners while performing juggling acts with knives and spatulas. The hotel has a number of swimming pools. The main pool is huge and features a self-contained Jacuzzi and a swim-up bar. The white beach in front of the hotel is narrow and has suffered damage from a number of autumn hurricanes in past years.
However, the Caribbean waters are crystal-clear and shallow, meaning children can play safely as it’s possible to walk out 100m or so with the water still only at adult chest height. The hotel’s animation team put on nightly shows incorporating local dancers and actors, which are a joy but can become a little repetitive by the end of a fortnight. However, the lounge bar serves good local and international brands of wines, spirits and beers and is a great place to socialise.
The rooms at the Iberostar are large and the bathrooms well-equipped with an excellent maid service. The gardens are also well maintained and the hotel has a first-class wedding service.
All in all, Cuba is a safe and wonderfully welcoming place to visit. It offers plenty of lazy days by the pool or beach, as well as the chance to explore a fabulously different old city like Havana.