On November 25, five years to the day since Fidel Castro’s death, I was sitting in the garden of Eclectico, a restaurant in Havana’s elegant neighbourhood of Vedado. Streets ran away on either side, pavements broken by the roots of Jaguey trees that shaded crumbling old mansions.
Listening to the singer Haydee Milanes perform a ballad, I sipped on a mojito, Cuba’s cocktail of mint, rum and lime.
This most lovely way to spend a Cuban evening has been all but impossible for the past two years, with Covid restrictions shutting all venues and silencing the musicians that give Havana its soundtrack.
A view of Havana’s elegant neighbourhood of Vedado, where pavements are broken by the roots of Jaguey trees
The pandemic has been tough on Cubans, but a feeling of normality is slowly returning. Cuba has had a remarkable couple of years after the government pulled off an astonishing feat by developing its own Covid vaccines, Soberana 02 and Abdala. More than 80 per cent of the population is fully dosed, making it the safest place in the Caribbean to visit.
Two years without tourism has, however, collapsed the economy. Last summer, protests flared as shortages grew.
Visitors bringing foreign currency are welcome as international travel starts up again. So here are our recommendations on how to make the most of a trip.
Striking: The 12-mile Varadero beach, pictured above, is one of the world’s best rivieras
A cart selling souvenirs on the white sandy beach of Varadero
Varadero, a 12-mile strip of white sand that cuts north into the Florida Straits, is one of the world’s best rivieras.
Two hours from Havana but with its own international airport, there are a glut of hotels, most of which offer enticing all-inclusive packages.
How to do it: Seven nights at the four-star Royalton Hicacos including flights from £900 pp (tui.co.uk).
The sunny and self-contained bay of Playa Jibacoa, pictured, is a popular escape both for tourists and Havanans
DOMINOES, FROGS AND HITCHHIKING
- The main island of Cuba is the largest in the Caribbean (and the 17th largest in the world).
- Baseball is the most popular sport because American sailors played it in the 1860s. The Spanish banned the sport in 1869 because of the U.S. connection but this just made it more popular.
- The biggest exports are tobacco, sugar and nickel.
- Christmas was officially banned from 1969 to 1997, but was allowed again after Pope John Paul II visited.
- Cuba is home to the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird (at about 6cm or 2.4in in length).
- It is also home to one of the world’s smallest frogs: the Monte Iberia dwarf frog.
- Dominoes is the national game.
- Hitchhiking is commonplace.
- Coca-Cola cannot officially be bought or sold.
- The literacy rate is 99.8 per cent.
- Mobile phones were banned until as recently as 2008.
Beneath a rocky outcrop looking north towards the Florida Keys, Playa Jibacoa lies in a sunny and self-contained bay.
It’s a popular escape both for tourists and those who live in Havana, being just an hour from the city.
Expect great value hotels facing the sea… and wonderful sunsets.
How to do it: Seven nights at the four-star Memories Jibacoa Hotel including Manchester flights from £629 pp (tui.co.uk).
KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY
Iberostar, the Spanish hotel chain that operates many of the best hotels in Cuba, works hard to offer parents stress-free weeks away. Almost all of its properties have interlocking rooms, water parks and ‘star camps’ to entertain children. The best of the lot is Iberostar Selection Varadero.
How to do it: A week’s all-inclusive at Iberostar Selection Varadero for a family of four with two children under 12 from £3,739 (firstchoice.co.uk).
For an adults-only hotel, try Mystique Casa Perla, which is on the edge of Varadero’s charming little town, making it easier to mix with locals. Drop by at a neighbourhood bar and make sure you eat at the excellent Salsa Suárez restaurant (Calle 31, No 103).
How to do it: A week in January is from £575 pp excluding flights, which start at £279 pp return in January from tui.co.uk; for a package try cubadirect.co.uk.
GREAT FOR GOLF
Varadero has a fabulous 18-hole golf course with views along the coast. It is in the grounds of Xanadu, an old mansion that was a holiday escape for the American businessman Irenee du Pont in the 1930s.
The hotel may be down on its luck but it is evocative and commands one of the best positions by the beach.
Guests can play unlimited rounds of golf. The rooftop bar serves excellent Santiago de Cuba 11-year-old rum.
How to do it: Doubles at Xanadu from £195 including half-board and golf (varaderogolfclub.com).
CITY AND SURF
It is increasingly popular to stay for a night or two in Havana, pictured above, before heading to one of Cuba’s beaches
Musicians play on the street in Havana. Visitors will find that the capital has amazing energy and an addictive character
It is increasingly popular to stay for a night or two in Havana before heading to the beach. Yes, parts of the Cuban capital may look a wreck, but the city has an amazing energy and addictive character.
If you would really like to get under Havana’s skin, try one of the new and luxurious homestays such as Gardens (gardenshavana.com).
How to do it: Cuba Private Travel offers Gardens for three nights at the Royalton Varadero from £1,660 pp with transfers but not flights (cubaprivatetravel.com).
ROAD TRIP ADVENTURE
Riot of colour: Driving in Havana. On a road trip of the island, always drive during daylight hours to avoid potholes, horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians
The back roads between the island’s keys and beaches is where you really see Cuba: rusting railroad tracks, farmers driving oxen and smartly turned out children in communist ‘young pioneer’ uniforms.
It’s perfectly safe and a fantastic adventure but always drive during daylight hours to avoid potholes, horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians.
How to do it: A ten-day Trailblazer Cuba self-drive holiday from £2,290 pp including flights, excursions and places to stay.
If you prefer not to drive, guided tours are also available (journeylatinamerica.co.uk).
Pictured is a pier in Cayo Guillermo. Head to the nearby Cayo Guillermo Resort, by Kempinski, which overlooks one of the finest stretches of sand in all of Cuba
There is a new beach resort that is about to sweep all others aside: Kempinski’s Cayo Guillermo Resort, which launched last week.
You pay a la carte for food and drinks — the grilled snapper is superb — and this spot overlooks one of the finest stretches of sand in all of Cuba.
The beach, Playa Pilar, is named after Ernest Hemingway’s marlin-fighting boat.
How to do it: Seven nights from £1,415 B&B (kempinski.com); flights extra.
Trinidad, pictured, is the most reminiscent of colonial times in Cuba, with cobbled streets and Spanish-era housing
If you have already been to Havana and done the northern beaches, try Trinidad instead. Pictured is the region’s Playa Ancon
RULES AND REGULATIONS IN CUBA…
You may enter Cuba if you are fully vaccinated — the NHS Covid pass is accepted. You also need to have a proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before travel. Rules may change, so check carefully at gov.uk.
Once there, masks must be worn in public places, even when outside.
If you have already been to Havana and done the northern beaches, try Trinidad instead.
The southern town is the most reminiscent of colonial times in Cuba, with cobbled streets and Spanish-era housing.
It is also home to Cuba’s best cocktail, the Canchanchara, which uses aguardiente (firewater).
Memories of slavery offer sharp edges to the town’s chocolate-box appeal. Yet this is a wonderful place with its own beach, Playa Ancon, and mountains cut by waterfalls where you can swim in natural pools.
How to do it: Stay at the local Iberostar hotel, the family-friendly Heritage Grand Trinidad; a week-long stay with tours from £1,590 pp (cubaprivatetravel.com).
It is great fun to sail along the southern coast on a catamaran from the French-influenced city of Cienfuegos to Cayo Largo and back again over the course of a week.
The boats that offer trips are big (83 ft) and comfortable. There are four double cabins and two singles in the hulls. They are sometimes under sail and sometimes powered by motor, and you swim in remote coves.
How to do it: Book the entire boat for a week with a skipper from £4,490 (wildcuba.com).
EXPLORE THE EAST
On the eastern coast, make a visit to ‘spectacular’ Baracoa (pictured), where the Spanish made their first colony
A local smoking a Cuban cigar on the streets of Havana. Air France has return flights from Heathrow to Havana via Paris from £343 return in May
At 777 miles, Cuba is around the length of Britain. Whole other worlds exist in the east of the island, where many of the independence wars were fought and where the revolution began.
This region has spectacular places such as Baracoa, where the Spanish made their first colony, and Cuba’s second city of Santiago. If you have the time, it is worth the trip.
How to do it: 15-day tours with hotels but excluding flights from £4,750 pp (steppestravel.com).
Off Cuba’s southern coast, Los Jardines de la Reina comprises a series of delightful mangrove islands.
They have been popular with divers and fly-fishermen for years, but you can also book a trip with Avalon Outdoors, which offers ecological holidays including snorkelling, kayaking, visits to turtle nesting sites and guided coastal walks. You stay in a cabin on one of their boats.
How to do it: Seven nights onboard with six days of activities costs from £1,450 pp excluding international flights (avalonoutdoor.com).
Head on a one-week tour of Cuba with Trailfinders and enjoy a rum tasting with the locals in Vinales (pictured)
Those pushed for time might enjoy this one-week tour of the island, which takes in some of its premier sights. Cycle through the streets of Havana, spend a couple of days relaxing on the beach at Santa Larga and enjoy some classic cocktails, including a rum tasting, with the locals in Vinales. This group tour also has a guide.
How to do it: Seven nights, including your activities and flights, from £1,179 pp (trailfinders.com).
A tour with Cuba Private Travel will fly you from Havana to Trinidad, Baracoa and Santiago (pictured above)
If money is no object and you want to see the whole country, fly.
Get picked up by a 16-seat twin prop in the Mexican city of Cancun and flown to Havana and from there to Trinidad, Baracoa and Santiago. Then relax at Kempinski’s resort on Playa Pilar.
How to do it: The price is from £8,550 pp, but you will need eight couples prepared to chip in (cubaprivatetravel.com).
- Note on flights: Air France has return flights from Heathrow to Havana via Paris from £343 return in May (airfrance.co.uk). Tui has direct return flights from Manchester to Varadero from £279 this month (tui.co.uk). Virgin Atlantic’s twice-weekly flights from Heathrow to Havana are due to resume later in the year but a date has not been set yet (virginatlantic.com).