Jane and Roger are the Marco Polo of husband and wife travellers. They’re also our most prolific bloggers, reporting from South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong and other hotspots. So when they decided to visit a Caribbean island of beauty and colour, we hoped they would take a notebook…
“We wanted to visit Cuba before the U.S. embargo is lifted and the country changes, so we booked 4 days in Havana and 10 at a beach resort.
The 40-minute airport transfer was in a 1954 Cadillac saloon to the Saratoga Hotel on the edge of the historic quarter, known as La Habana Vieja (old).
Some of the 16th century Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful baroque buildings have been revived and maintained as a UNESCO World Heritage Site but in contrast there are innumerable crumbling edifices resembling a bombsite. We were in the perfect location to explore the incredible back roads and alleys, admire the amazing history and mix with the locals.
We booked a guided tour of Havana in a pink 1954 Pontiac convertible; the one-hour excursion took us past various landmarks and included a stop at Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel Castro and several popes have addressed the nation. We then drove along the acclaimed Malecón sea drive.
There followed a tour on foot to the historical Plaza de la Catedral, followed by the classic boutique Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway resided and wrote some of his novels. We enjoyed a Mojito on the roof top bar just as he would have done.
The oldest and most touristic square (1520), Plaza de Armas, (Square of Arms) is lined with royal palms, hosts a daily secondhand book market and has a striking white marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the man who set Cuba on the road to independence in 1868.
Next is the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, the entrance to the old city from the harbour, where we had a lovely cafe lunch and indulged in people watching. During our walk, the countless popular family-run ‘paladares‘ were pointed out; private restaurants serving homemade Cuban food.
Lastly came the Plaza Vieja, consisting of bars and restaurants with street music and dancers. The quirky lanes or alleys back to the hotel were narrow but fairly smooth compared to the cobbled plazas.
High buildings on both sides were crumbling and in decay, with locals overhanging the elaborate iron and stone balconies or conducting business at street level from the Spanish oak doors of their basic abode; selling drinks and homemade food, refilling cigarette lighters, painting, carrying their government weekly rations in large open boxes of fresh eggs, as well as a host of street food sellers.
We felt extremely safe throughout as long as we avoided the potholes and hawking cycle taxis – where they thought they would put the wheelchair, I’ve no idea – cars and other hand pulled carts carrying rubbish.
Later, we made our way to the hotel rooftop pool and bar area for a sunset cocktail with extensive views over the metropolis – I was lifted up two sets of steps by the exceedingly helpful staff.
We ate at a nearby restaurant; even at 6 o’clock the popular establishments had queues outside. We had beers, a bottle of French wine, fish and lobster, rice, Cuban beans and roots with coffees. £35!
The next day was, again, gloriously sunny. We spent sometime in the Parque de la Fraternidad before passing the Partagás, the most famous cigar factory in Cuba, heading towards the Parque Central, a scenic haven away from the busy city traffic, where we sat and chatted with some very amiable senior locals on benches alongside a striking marble monument of Jose Marti, a national revolutionary hero. The park is dominated by numerous palm trees and radiant flora behind which the Cadillac taxis are parked up, waiting.
We joined the tree-lined, pedestrianised, marble walkway towards the Malecon. This is very popular, probably due to the contrast with the derelict roads of the city: we passed dog walkers, joggers, schoolchildren playing football, and locals reading newspapers on the many benches.
On to the Museo Revolución, the former Presidential Palace, then up a nearby back street and came across the beautiful Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio located in a small-scale square.
That evening we went to the historically and legendary Tropicana Cabaret Club. We paid 210 CUCs (£145) for a taxi and show, including a bottle of local rum and two cokes, plus some peanuts. It’s a Vegas style show with innumerable dancers in radiant and revealing costumes, music and lights; I would recommend it although I feel we saw some good nightly shows in Varadero, but certainly not as big, as long or as spectacular.
When we returned there were a dozen local teenagers beside the doorway; they were on their electronic devices logging onto the hotel’s Internet. The internet in Cuba has been tightly controlled in the past although availability and use is slowly changing – only about 5% of Cubans have web access at home.
The next day we continued exploring the alleys; on Calle O’Reilly we found an outdoor market where Jane bought a couple of handmade leather purses. Everywhere is buzzing and friendly, epitomised by the abundance of señoritas dressed in traditional colourful dresses earning ‘tips’ for having photos with tourists. We stopped for refreshments at various cafes whilst being entertained by brightly coloured costumed stilt walkers and various bands.
The next day we left the hotel at 10.30 for the 145km taxi drive east to Varadero, which is located on the narrow Hicacus Peninsula.
After arriving at the luxury, all-inclusive, adults-only Royalton Hicacus Hotel, our ‘butler’ Isaac took us around the grounds and the many wooden pathways over the canals.
We had a spacious, accessible suite with a sizeable balcony. We could order anything, anytime via the ‘diamond butler service’, so we had hot water – took our own tea bags – and orange juice delivered daily at 8am and enjoyed a cocktail on the balcony watching the sun set behind one of the many pagodas before going out in the evening. Our itinerary said ‘best view’ and we were very impressed.
This was the perfect place to relax after Havana: the weather was constantly sunny and very warm. The main pool has waterfalls, bridges, a swim-up bar, several jacuzzis and an ample variety of sun beds offering shade if desired. There was a cobbled pathway and wooden bridge to the stunning white sandy beach with a couple of bars, sun beds and straw umbrellas.
In keeping with all the friendly and helpful staff, the lifeguards were very willing to carry me onto the beach and the nearby restaurant staff brought a cooked lunch, meaning we could alternate our sunbathing areas.
There are also two small quiet pools at either end of the complex, a spa (which we didn’t use) and a large grass area, so relaxing options are plentiful. Many sports are offered free, including sailing and scuba diving.
There are multiple places to eat and drink: the superb buffet restaurant has everything, including a bar, and there are 4 a la carte restaurants offering Italian, seafood, Mexican and Caribe dishes. Our butlers arranged the necessary reservations, and there are a number of other places to get food and drink in addition to the main lobby bar where all premium international drinks and cocktails are served. There is live music wherever you go and during the day and evening staff are everywhere.
The entertainment team work tirelessly; there are fashion shows, dancing lessons, competitions plus a nightly outdoor show with a variety of acts, including a ‘Tropicana’ show, rock band, circus and swimming pool display, there is also a night club and evening piano bar.
Presently, Cuba offers an abundance of colonial architecture and vintage cars, a communist lifestyle where despite exceptionally low wages the people present an enjoyment of life and huge pride in their country, reflected by the fervent displays of bands playing and locals dancing to salsa music, ensuring visitors have an unforgettable experience of the Latin America culture.
We felt as if we had two holidays and did not want to leave; we were specially treated throughout.
Massive thanks to Shelley at Abbotts for her help in organising it.”