Why Cuba should be on everyone’s hot list this year
There’s one destination on everybody’s hot list this year: Cuba. It’s the home of classic cars, glamorous cabaret shows, the world’s best cigars and rum cocktails galore. Kristie Kellahan follows the siren call.
If I had a Cuban peso for every time I heard a traveller say they wanted to visit the fabled Caribbean island “before the Americans go”, I could shout everyone many rounds of headily strong rum daiquiris.
For one thing, the drinks are cheap in Cuba — about three to four dollars in most cocktail bars. For another, President Obama’s announcement earlier this year that the US is planning to relax the embargo that has been in place against Cuba for more than half a century has world travellers questioning the impact an influx of Americans will have on a country that is still developing its tourism industry.
The truth is, Americans have been going to Cuba for years, albeit while routing their flights through third-party countries including Mexico and the Bahamas, or joining charter flights out of Florida under the guise of approved cultural, business or family reunion travel. Things will get easier now that JetBlue has commenced direct New York City to Havana flights out of JFK. Australians have always been allowed to go to Cuba and the rush is now on to visit before tourist numbers swell and Golden Arches appear in historic town squares.
Vintage charm in Old Havana
Every Cuban adventure should begin in Old Havana. There’s more than a bit of magic in a city that has managed to keep pre-embargo classic cars on the road for more than 50 years, while managing to keep on dancing in the face of isolation and rationing. Vintage Chevrolets, Buicks and classic Mercedes line the streets and often double as unofficial taxis. After wandering the old squares and churches of the cobble-stoned historic centre, hail a classic convertible and go riding along the Malecón, the waterfront boulevard.
For elegant accommodation, stay at Hotel Saratoga. Good enough for Jay Z and Beyoncé, the hotel has a delicious rooftop pool, five-star indulgences and Wi-Fi, which in itself is luxurious in Cuba. Also worth considering are other members of the Habaguanex group of hotels, beautifully restored historic properties in the oldest parts of Havana. There’s an incomparable charm to sitting down to breakfast in an airy courtyard that has stood for more than 250 years, as we did at Hotel Palacio del Marques de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal.
Be sure to book advance tickets for the Tropicana cabaret show under the stars. Described as the largest and most gorgeous nightclub in the world, the Tropicana is a glam throwback to the 1950s when stars including Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway flocked to perform there. Even with an entry price of more than $100 — and seating for more than 1500 guests — it regularly sells out.
Beaches, waterfalls and plazas
Dining in Cuba is an experience in which you’re never quite sure what the outcome will be. The good: lobster, lobster and more lobster. Local fishermen haul in a mighty catch each day that is served up doused in butter and salt at rooftop restaurants and corner cafés.
The challenge: menu items not available due to shortages, and the risk of food poisoning, also known as Castro’s revenge. Pack some Imodium and a sense of adventure and you’ll be fine. It’s easy to fill four or five days in Havana, and if you have more time to spare there is plenty more of Cuba to experience.
Sun-worshippers head to the upscale resorts that line Varadero beach or along the keys in Cayo Santa Maria. Powdery soft white sand and no-filter-required turquoise warm water make these the kind of Caribbean beaches dreams are made of during long, cold winters.
A day trip from Havana to Viñales offers opportunities to hike to magnificent waterfalls, visit farms where the world’s finest cigar tobacco is grown and enjoy the down-home hospitality of Cuban country folk. In the UNESCO World Heritage town of Trinidad, architecture buffs will enjoy historic plazas, Spanish Colonial-era buildings and open-air music casas, where the sensual sounds of Afro-Cuban jazz fill the night.
Click here for our 6 tips to know before you go
Accommodation www.hotel-saratoga.com & www.habaguanexhotels.com
Air Canada flies from Sydney to Havana via Vancouver and Toronto. www.aircanada.com
LAN flies to Havana from Sydney via Santiago, Chile and Lima, Peru. www.lan.com