The largest island in the Caribbean is on the brink of massive change. Now, without doubt, is the time to visit. by Gillian Upton
Stepping back in time is integral to the Cuban experience. The entire island, the largest in the Caribbean, appears to be locked in a time warp, exemplified more than anywhere by the capital, Havana.
Fifty years of a US trade blockade have put paid to any building maintenance or modernisation. The economy is in tatters. Cubans have food ration cards and meagre salaries. Few can afford cars and buses are overcrowded.
Yet for visitors to the socialist state of Cuba – firmly in the hands of Raul Castro now his brother Fidel is in poor health – reliving its heyday from the 1930s is part of the rich destination experience and tourism brings much-needed income. I joined a seven-day cruise aboard the 1,200-passenger Celestyal Crystal (formerly Louis Cristal) operated by Canadian-owned Cuba Cruise.
The night we arrived, I rode around in a red open-top Cadillac from that era and sipped a classic Mojito on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional overlooking the 7km-long Malecon seafront promenade. It’s easy to imagine how majestic the crumbling Art Deco and Art Nouveau edifices must have once looked.
How long this fading charm will last is now questionable, as US President Barack Obama has been instrumental in thawing the long-standing relationship between the two countries. Locals do not expect change to come too quickly, though. On board, shore excursion manager Christina Istrate, told me: “Cuba will open up, but it will take some time.” Yet things are already happening; since my cruise, MSC Cruises has announced that it wll be home-porting the 2,120-passenger MSC Opera in Havana for the coming winter season – the first mainstream line to base a ship here.
Hot on the heels of this announcement came the news that Carnival Corporation’s fathom brand will operate ‘social impact’ cruises here every other week from next spring, from Miami, with passengers participating in volunteering projects ashore.
Spain’s discovery of the Cuban archipelago in the 16th century set the island’s fate for years to come. The indigenous Indians, wiped out by colonisation, were replaced by African slaves who worked the sugar plantations for nearly a century. Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba developed into thriving towns for the wealthy plantation owners who built grand homes filled with the finest European objets d’art. These were the best excursions on my cruise.
Trinidad – a UNESCO World Heritage site – is a poignant lesson in this revolutionary island’s history. From the port of Cienfuegos on the south coast, it’s a two-hour coach journey along bumpy roads to the centre of the island. Trinidad’s jewel is Plaza Mayor, crammed with ochrecoloured mansions on all sides. One is now the Museum of Romance, fronted by vast doors large enough for a horse and carriage to pass through into a pretty courtyard. Original exhibits include Meissen and Limoges porcelain embellished with the family’s initials as well as Baccarat crystal and a Carrara marble bath.
We had a guided tour of this lavish property, free time to walk the wide, cobbled streets, peruse street vendors’ wares – from cigars and ceramics to crochet garments and eclectic art – and marvel at other homes turned into art galleries and museums. Lunch was in the cool of the courtyard of the former Spanish Royal Prison in Cienfuegos, where we were serenaded by local musicians.
Havana, Cuba’s main attraction, is worth at least three days pre- or post-cruise. From the port, I meandered through the old town and found the imposing cathedral, endless decorative stone friezes, tiling and stylised figurative detail on almost every building. There are cobblestoned plazas in which to sit and have coffee, while other sights include the rum empire that once occupied the Art Deco Bacardi building, the Museum of the Revolution, the stunning Grand Theatre and Capitol building on Paseo de Marti.
The sounds of the city are another distraction as Cuban culture is thriving, in music, art and literature. I stumbled upon open-air poetry readings, musical ensembles and street entertainers.
Santiago de Cuba, the former capital, is the island’s second largest city and takes credit for the roots of the Cuban Revolution and arguably the most exuberant annual carnival. The sprawling El Morro castle, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built by the Spaniards in the 17th century. Our excursion allowed time to explore and take in the amazing views from the parapet.
A refreshing Mojito set everyone up for the bus tour of the city afterwards, taking in monuments, the imposing colonial home of the Bacardi family, now a cultural centre, the historic quarter, and the San Juan Hills where Teddy Roosevelt brought US forces to join the Cuban army to capture the ridge in the 1898 Spanish-American war. American intervention this time around, though, will free this beautiful, diverse island to develop as it should have.
NEED TO KNOW
Tourist Visa or Tourist Card is required, valid for 30 days (cubadiplomatico.cu).
Passports must be valid for six months from the date of entry.
A dual currency operates: the Cuban Peso (CUP) for locals and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourists.
ATMs are often empty so passengers should take cash. ATMS do not accept withdrawals from Switch cards. It’s best to change money at banks or hotels only.
Wifi is erratic and most likely to be found in large hotels. gifts of pens, pencils and toiletries are appreciated.
Cuba has novelty on its side; it’s a ‘new’ Caribbean destination agents can sell during the winter season as a cultural, cruise or beach break. Earmarked for massive tourism development once American passport holders begin to flood in, the advice for passengers is to go now.
Hotel accommodation in Cuba is hard to find, especially for clients who want to stay in Havana – but cruise ships still have availability.
Culture aside, the best beaches are on the north of the island. Varadero has been built for mass tourism while 6,000 private cays offer barefoot, uncommercialised tourism.
Pre or post stays in Havana are best in the Hotel Sevilla (Mercure) or Floridita in the old town or Melia Cohiba, Nacional or NH Parc Central.