From the faded charm of Havana to the beaches of Caya Coco and the rural idyll of the Pinar del Rio, the Caribbean island of Cuba has something for everyone. Sarah Marshall recalls some of her favourite places…
Hot-footing around Havana
It’s a sweltering evening and through the darkness, musicians drum an intoxicating Salsa rhythm. Tall palm trees seemingly swing in time as I sip my glass of seven year-old rum and prepare for a night to remember.
Suddenly the spotlight swings to the stage, and a flock of girls descend from the trees in time to the music. The music picks up, lights flash on glittering costumes, and the world-famous Club Tropicana kicks off another long Havana night.
Launched in 1939, this floorshow inspired copycat cabaret all over the world. But the sequins and feathers hide a darker history, inseparable from the Cuba of popular imagination – gangsters, gambling and gunshots.
The past is rarely far away on this Caribbean island. Apart from the near-constant presence of its revolutionary heroes – the island’s chequered history is etched into its heart. Very little is new in Cuba, from Spanish colonial style, to the classic American cars.
One of the best places to view this irrepressible capital is from the top of the 137m-high memorial to the patriot, José Marti.
Here the sun beats down on a sweeping panorama – taking in the Capitolio Nacional, a copy of the Capitol building in Washington, the faded beauty of the old district by the harbour, and the sprawling centre.
Following the tourist trail here may be the easy option, but it does not disappoint.
Make time to visit the Hotel Nacional de Cuba – the flagship hotel and the hangout of Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and novelist Ernest Hemingway in glitzier times.
Later, sip a daiquiri in the writer’s old hangout, La Floridita, where a bronze statue of Hemingway props up the bar.
There are two luxury hotel options to choose from in central Havana: the NH Parque Central is a lively five-star stay, while the boutique Saratoga enjoys a more intimate atmosphere. Both have roof-top pools.
Eating out is always a delight; try El Templete for seafood and La Guarida for a romantic dinner in a wonderful setting.
Soaking up sun in Varadero
Settling on a sunbathing spot in Varadero – Cuba’s most popular beach destination – is a difficult task as there is 20km of unbroken white sand to choose from.
The wafer-thin Hiracacos Peninsula is lined with hotels and all-inclusive resorts, all lapped by warm turquoise waters. It’s a lively choice for those looking for simple sun, sea and sand.
You can find all the usual water sports, but activities further afield are worth a look. Why not test your survival skills with a jungle trek which involves a high-speed boat race and snorkelling in the mangroves?
Varadero has its own airport, serviced by several charter flights, and is just a two-hour drive from Havana.
The natural beauty of Pinar del Rio
Rust-red soils, sprawling tobacco fields and hummingbirds the size of your thumb can be found in Cuba’s rural Pinar del Rio province.
Although farmers still walk around with machetes low-slung from their belts, the welcome here is warm and friendly.
The best way to travel is by car. Roads can be bumpy and poorly signposted, so it’s recommended to hire a driver in Havana.
Start your exploration of the area at the eco-village of Las Terrazas. The series of hillside terraces, planted with pines to prevent erosion, has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Melting into the surrounding landscape, Hotel Moka in Las Terrazas is one of the most interesting hotels in Cuba. A giant tree grows through the airy lobby; its winding branches extending through the roof. Ask for a room with glass-fronted bathroom overlooking the terraces, where you can shower directly with nature.
Nicknamed the ‘rainbow of Cuba’, thanks to its colourful vegetation, nearby Saroa is replete with tropical orchids and cascading waterfalls. Those brave enough can bathe in the sulphurous and therapeutic waters of Banos Romanos.
The most majestic sight in Pinar del Rio, however, is the mysterious Valle de Vinales. This valley, filled with tobacco plantations, is wedged into the Sierra de los Organos mountain range. Stay overnight at the Hotel Los Jazmines and awake at dawn to witness a fine, eerie mist rising through the plantations. The experience is unmissable.
Lazy days in Cayo Coco
Famous for its beautiful beaches, Cayo Coco, Cuba’s fourth largest island, is also home to several top-end resorts. Dig your toes into the 600m of white sandy beaches before going under to explore the spectacular coral coast of Barrera Coralina.
All the large resorts on Cayo Coco have their own restaurants, bars, discos and sports facilities. Make sure you leave your complex at some point though.
The island’s former airport has been transformed into the 769-hectare Parque Natural El Baga, and is definitely worth an excursion. Here you’ll find an impressive range of flora and fauna and an abundance of flamingo.
The island’s new airport receives weekly flights from UK and European destinations. Guests can also fly twice daily from Havana.
Cultural outings in Trinidad
Located on the Caribbean side of Cuba, life ticks by at a slower pace in Trinidad. Declared a World Heritage site, here old men puffing on oversized cigars meander through the hot and dusty cobblestone streets, and local artisans proudly peddle their wares.
The meticulously restored houses offer an insight into how the Spanish nobility lived in the 16th century, while their cool, tiled courtyards provide relief from the sun.
If staying in the city, book a room at the five-star Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad. Superior rooms overlook a central lobby, where guests relax before taking dinner in the impressive buffet restaurant. Alternatively, there are many beachside resorts a ten-minute drive away.
More folkloric than Havana, Trinidad is the place to sample traditional Afro-Cuban music and dance. Many of the local bars and cafes stage daily shows. But don’t be surprised if you’re pulled up on stage and asked to join in!
- Thompson (www.thompson.co.uk) and Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk) offer packages to Cuba including all the major hotels.
- For more info on the NH Parque Central, Havana visit http://www.hotelparquecentral-cuba.com
- For more info on the hotel Saratoga visit www.hotel-saratoga.com
- For more info on the Iberostar Tainos, Varadero and the Iberostar Grand Hotel, Trinidad visit www.iberostar.com
- Room rates at the Hotel Moka in Las Terrazas start from around £40 per night. Visit www.hotelmoka-lasterrazas.com for more info.
- An overnight stay at the Hotel Los Jazmines costs around £45 per night per room, through specialist tour operator Cubaism – www.cubaism.com