We started our trip in the Virgin Upper Class Lounge at Gatwick, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic, drinking their signature cocktails, Virgin Reds. We boarded our flight to Havana and turned left into premium economy, a spacious 2/4/2 configuration making our 10 hour flight a painless experience.
We were greeted on arrival by “ Carlos” and “Ramon” from Cubanacon, Cuba Holiday’s ground agents and also torrential rain and thunderstorms…
After a 25 minute drive we arrived at our home for the next four nights; The Melia Habana, a classic hotel between the city and the sea. It boasts the largest pool in Havana and is surrounded by lush tropical gardens. We were given level service rooms; which are on floor five and offer concierge service, separate reception, A La Carte dining, free Wi-Fi, exclusivity and privacy.
Our next three days in Havana included visits to a variety of hotels, each one offering its own reasons for you to stay there. Hotel Telegrafo, Hotel Florida, Ambos Mundos, NH Capri, Melia Cohiba, Inglaterra, Gran Manzana Kempinski, Iberostar Park Central and the Nacional to name but a few. Some are small and boutique whilst others larger with more modern décor. Whichever you choose will not disappoint, as the ambience and friendliness in them all will only enhance your stay. We also visited various Casa’s, which are privately owned Cuban houses ranging from one bedroom to nine or ten, basically the equivalent to B&B’s, where the families live in the same house and cater for your needs. They are a fraction of the cost of some hotels and are becoming increasingly popular, especially within the mid 20’s age range of traveller. They tend to be located more in the heart of the city so wandering the streets after a few “Cuba Libra’s” on your balcony is easy and you get to experience the real Havana. The Casas are my personal favourites but they tend to be accessed by a few flights of stairs and generally you need to manage your own luggage. This needs to be taken into consideration when booking.
Our visit to the Hotel Nacional can be viewed from here
We also enjoyed a full tour of Havana on wheels; as we hopped on a fleet of colourful classic cars, viewing the city from a scenic, rolling vantage point. One of the first stops was the forest of Havana with its lush greenery and Jaguey trees. We then went to Revolution Square, with a guided visit and finished our journey at the Nacional Hotel via Malecon Avenue where we viewed more captivating sights as we drove past varied architecture and the spectacular sea.
Our classic car trip can be seen from here
We were well and truly spoiled with daytime and evening visits to restaurants and bars.
O’Reilleys 304…. boasts modern and elegant presentation but preserves the rich flavour of Cuban fare. It was bursting with energy and full to the brim with customers and had possibly the smallest kitchen I had ever seen, but the food was outstanding.
Cha Cha Cha…Is across the street from the Museum of Revoultion. It is remodelled from an old house on tall struts. It is over two floors and is best described as minimalist utilitarian/ industrial chic, great ambience, music and food.
VIP Havana …..Havana with a Miami influence. Large central bar on the restaurant floor with drinks shelves backlit with neon strip lights and black and white movies showing silently on a massive screen on the wall. Refined, but not snobby.
La Guarida…..was opened in 1996. It was a family home starting with 12 seats, now reaching 70/80. Anyone rich or famous has eaten in this stunning restaurant. It has become an iconic and refreshing eating place in the heart of the crumbling yet majestic Centro Habana, a district known for its decaying buildings and not much else. It offers rather eccentric fine dining with no two pieces of crockery or glass being the same. You can’t help but admire the old artefacts, paintings and bohemian icons scattered everywhere, transporting you to a different era but reminding you of its striking allure as a once majestic colonial building, that after years of decay and abandonment still defies the passing of time. It’s a fascinating place, unique and inviting to every kind of visiting diner from romantic couples to families. Word of warning though, you must book in advance and also reconfirm your reservation on the day.
The culinary perspective has taken a brighter turn in Cuba in recent years with the blossoming of privately owned restaurants called “paladores”. Young entrepreneurs have opened modern dining venues and they are highly responsible for this evolution and it is fantastic.
Nightlife in Havana….Amongst Havana’s many riches is the Bohemian spirit of its nights which stand out and service its visitors. Intense, fast paced and with a multitude of places to enjoy and discover, the most intriguing Havana being the one that awakes at midnight and dwells into the early morning hours.
Our visit to Tropicana…The oldest, most legendary “cabaret under the stars” (only ours had to be moved inside due to a torrential storm). Two hours of non-stop cabaret show which lulls you in to a sense of tropical intoxication, (also fuelled by the free rum). Scantily clad dancers move to the beats of the rumba, conga and mambo in feather and sequin costumes to the extreme. Tropicana has been the quintessential symbol of Havana nights since 1939, intense, fast paced and different. It’s a must do and a fun couple of hours.
Our time in Havana over, we left for Varadero, a journey taking two and a half hours with a stop for Pina coladas, listening to a live band and being dive bombed by Turkey Vultures at the tallest bridge in Cuba.
We were staying at the Melia Varadero for three nights and treated to the level service again.
Varadero is all about the beach…undoubtedly one of the best I’ve seen. It has widened in places since hurricane Irma. It’s a stunning, relaxing place to sip rum on the sun loungers and swim in the warm tropical sea.
Our time here included some hotel visits. Royalton Hicacos Resort (a Sandals property without the Sandals name, as its owned 49/51% by the Cuban government), Iberostar Varadero, Melia Las Americas, Navity, Blau Varadero, Melia Las Antillas, Tainos, Sol Palmeras, Iberostar Bella Vista, Paradisus Princessa Del Mar and Melia Marina.
My personal favourites here were the Paradisius Princessa del Mar and the Royalton Hicacos, they are both adult only and true five star. The Blau Varadero is also adult only but a four star. I would not hesitate to sell this property if there was a smaller budget to adhere to, it was fab and the reviews speak for themselves.
During our stay in Varadero we also had a vintage car ride to Xanadu Mansion, a club house of the Varadero Golf Club. This magical place has been refurbished, strictly respecting its original construction in 1930. There are magnificent views of the ocean from all sides of the house and it is a beautiful place to enjoy cocktails and watch the sun set.
We also went to the Buena Vista Social Club in Plaza America to enjoy a show of traditional Cuban music made world famous by Cuban musician Juan de Marcus Gonzales and US guitarist Ry Cooder. The group was composed of veterans of a members club in Havana where musicians used to hang out and jam. Half a century after the club closed, Cooder and Co convened some of the musicians to record an album and the Buena Vista Social Club became an international sensation performing worldwide. Since 2006 successors have played regular sessions in Varadero and it’s an amazing opportunity to hear the legendary music of this golden age…a truly fantastic experience.
We were also lucky enough to have a full afternoon free to enjoy the beach and a full morning before we departed for our journey back to Havana airport for our Virgin Atlantic flight home.
It is difficult to describe Cuba and especially Havana. From the moment you set foot in the airport you feel that time stands still here and that you have landed in a beautiful but chaotic city from 50 years ago. After day one I stopped trying to make sense of how things work and just appreciated the beauty around me. Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat. Behind the sometimes shabby facades, gold dust lingers. This is what makes travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller coaster ride that it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo for almost half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to the everyday assumptions and expect the unexpected. The country is slowly awakening from a deep slumber so go now and ride the wave. Cuba has taught me that we can be happy and kind, even with much less than we already have.
Go and feel the real Cuba…. “My Heart is in Havana….oooh la la “