This is one of my favourite destinations in the Caribbean as it’s still relatively unspoilt. Step back in time as you disembark the plane at Havana and walk through the arrivals Hall, the smell of aromatic cigar smoke assaults your senses. Even the police smoke cigars on duty in Cuba!
It was a 30 minute transfer from Havana Airport to the 5* Saratoga Hotel where we stayed for 2 nights. It is located in Old Havana across the street from the Capitol Building, Grand Teatro and in front of Fraternity Park. This beautifully restored colonial building with its wrought iron balconies and neo-classical façade dates back to the 1930’s, offering 96 rooms and suites across 7 floors all with modern amenities. The interior is modern and cosmopolitan in design with a bar and restaurant. The rooftop swimming pool also has a bar/restaurant and boasts amazing views of Havana.
We ate at a local Palada (small, family-run, private-owned restaurant) called Dona Carmela, a bit like eating in the garden of a favourite aunt with her pet cat purring at your feet. La Guarida is my favourite Palada and it’s hard to describe why, you just have to experience its eclectic mix of furniture and walls adorned with an assortment of paintings, prints and ornaments to understand. The food is superb with a varied menu choice coupled with great service.
We took a 3 hour morning City Tour, which gave us the chance to get our bearings and see the major sights in Havana. We walked around the old town to a lesser-known hidden gem called ‘Camera Obscura’ on the corner of Plaza Vieja, where we gasped in delight at a magical invention by Leonardo De Vinci. For $2 CUC each we took a tour in the Grand Teatro adorned with stone and marble statues and plush faded red velvet seats and drapes. Simply Red played a concert here on a hot balmy evening in 2005 with proceeds donated for the ongoing renovations planned for the theatre. Onto the Revolution Museum, where the guards take their duties very seriously and where Mick made the mistake of stepping on the grass to get a closer look at a military vehicle, and was duly reprimanded!
Music plays a big part in Cuban culture - it pours out of windows and doorways and often small groups of musicians set up their instruments and start a jamming session in the square or park in the middle of the day.
This charming city feels like it has been frozen in time with its vintage cars and Baroque-style buildings. Some of the once grandiose buildings, built during the city's more prosperous times, lie in disrepair, but still adds to the charm of the city.
We then took a scenic 3-hour drive from Havana to Varadero, a peninsula on the northern coast of Cuba with 12 kilometres of white sand beaches. We stayed at the 5* Iberostar Varadero on an all-inclusive meal basis. This modern but grand beach front resort offers 386 rooms and suites spread over 11 buildings offering a good choice of restaurants and bars plus a spa, evening entertainment and a children’s club.
There are quite a few sightseeing options available; swimming with dolphins, catamaran cruises to neighbouring islands, Nature & Eco tours and day trips to Cienfuegos & Trinidad and scuba diving. Plus an open top double-decker bus operates frequently from Varadero Beaches to Varadero town, which is worth an afternoon visit to its craft market.
Because of the import restraints levied on Cuba there are not many souvenirs to purchase except Havana Club Rum and Cuban cigars where you can make big savings compared to UK prices. Images of Che Guevara the famous revolutionist are everywhere so T-shirts, hats and other tourist souvenirs can be purchased anywhere in Cuba.
I love Cuba for its culture, history, beaches, architecture, people (and rum), but how much longer it will remain ‘unspoilt’ now that Fidel Castro has handed over the Presidency to his brother Raul remains to be seen. I urge you to visit sooner rather than later.