A visit to Cuba: Viva la revolución!

A visit to Cuba no longer has to involve bland cuisine and state-run hotels; the island’s fledgling private sector is enriching the tourist experience

What’s the attraction?

There has been much talk of recent change in Cuba. However, the sunshine socialist state has been changing for a while - the Marxist-Leninist model has been regularly tweaked since the 1990s to keep the island’s economy afloat. Three years ago, President Raúl Castro kickstarted a wider private-enterprise boom, giving more Cubans the chance to run their own businesses.

Now, new private restaurants, bars, rental penthouses, sports activities and tours are giving visitors a greater experience of this complex and alluring Caribbean nation. It was also announced last week that the dual-currency system will be gradually phased out in favour of a single Cuban peso, which will make life far simpler  for visitors.

And there are parties in the pipeline, too. The conquering Spaniards  founded seven beautiful cities in Cuba: sleepy Bayamo celebrates its 500th  anniversary on 5 November; with stunning Trinidad and little-visited Sancti Spíritus, celebrating theirs in 2014.

What’s more, a new film starring Cuban Royal Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, Day of the Flowers (dayoftheflowers.com), will bring the island into focus when it’s released in UK cinemas  next month.

Grand tours

A new breed of alternative journeys has joined the traditional guided, biking or self-drive tours around Cuba. For example, you can learn to photograph sharks between the pristine coral islands of the Jardines de la Reina with underwater cameraman Nigel Wade on a seven-day holiday for £3,199pp with flights (020 7644 8252; thescubadivingplace.co.uk).

Meanwhile, Cuba Solidarity (020 8800 0155; cuba-solidarity.org.uk/tours) offers a new LGBT programme on the island; a week starts at £1,330pp, including flights.

Henrietta Loyd, of Cazenove+Loyd (020 7384 2332; cazloyd.com), leads a well-researched glimpse into the avant-garde world of Cuban artists (one week from 13 March £2,390pp, excluding flights), while independent travellers can meander off the beaten track with Cuba’s first private operators: both Trinidad Travels (00 53 5 282 3726; trinidadtravels.com) and Bayamo Travel Agent (00 53 5 292 2209; bayamotravelagent.com) are run by dedicated young Cubans.

Gastro revolution

Until recently, Cuba was a desert of dreadful dining. Since 2011, paladares (private restaurants) have been cooking up a storm – especially in Havana – as chefs, despite food shortages, ride Cuba’s culinary new wave. Top spots include the elegant Le Chansonnier (00 53 7 832 1576; lechansonnierhabana.com), sushi shack Santy’s (00 53 5 286 7039) and Old Town top pick Doña Eutimia (00 53 7 861 1332).

Beyond Havana, culinary highlights include the innovative cuisine at El Olivo (00 53 48 696 654) in Viñales; La Botija tavern in Trinidad is a former slave-memorabilia museum (00 53 5 283 0147); San José (00 53 24 424877; restaurantesanjose.com) for barbecued seafood in Holguín; El Madrileño (00 53 22 644138) in Santiago; and El Poeta (00 53 24 424877) in Baracoa, where coconut infuses dishes.

British chef Sarah Saunders has launched Taste Adventures in western Cuba (01892 862 300; tasteadventures.com) offering tobacco ranch pig roasts, gastronomic beach barbecues, forest and waterfall walks with picnics for the gourmet traveller.

Clubs, cocktails and cafés

Emerging from the crumbling columns and vast villas of Havana is a party scene populated by Cuba’s farándula (artists, musicians, actors), moneyed locals and in-the-know tourists. Boho Madrigal (00 53 7 831 2433) led the way as the first private bar in Havana. Speakeasy-style Melen remains número uno (00 53 7 203 0433) for nocturnal barflies, while the reincarnated Sloppy Joe’s (a magnet for American tourists from the 1920s to the 1950s) occupies a busy corner of downtown (00 53 7 866 7157).

For reviving coffee and literary enlightenment, head to Havana’s only English-language bookshop and café, Cuba Libro (00 53 7 830 5205).

Luxury living

Havana’s Hotel Capri, built by a mobster and originally run by racketeers, (00 53 7 833 3747; www.gran-caribe.cu) is due to reopen this winter after a multi-million dollar makeover. While innovation in Cuba’s hotel scene has been limited, newly opened Meliá Marina Varadero (00 53 45 667330; meliacuba.com; doubles from CUC221/£143, all inclusive), and music hotel Blue Salsa Club (00 53 45 614555; bluebayresorts.com) are shaking up the scene at Cuba’s biggest beach resort.

Cuba’s own boutique brand, Encanto, has sharpened up with the opening of the Hotel Ordoño in Gibara (00 53 24 844448; doubles from CUC74/£48 B&B).

Previously banned on beaches, casas particulares (B&Bs) have pushed open the shutters, most notably in Varadero and Guardalavaca (mycasaparticular.com). While in Havana, penthouses, and villas with pools, are the latest luxury beds in the private rental market.

Meliá Marina hotel, Varadero  

Ribbon-cutting roll outs

The cranes are out as restoration of the island’s museums and attractions continues. In the private sector, Papito of Arte Corte, a hair salon and hairdressing museum in Havana (00 53 7 861 0202) has helped revive a small alley (Calle Aguiar) in Old Havana. There’s also a museum of cash registers in the pipeline.

Cuba’s avant-garde artists are inspirational: a new nomadic museum of outsider art in Havana has opened at the Espacio Aglutinador (espacioaglutinador.com) in Havana’s leafy Vedado district. Afro-rock musician X Alfonso is converting a warehouse into a multimedia arts building next to El Cocinero, a paladar housed in a fomer peanut factory (00 53 7 832 2355).

In Trinidad, a monumental effort is underway to haul the dust sheets off the palaces and museums in time for the city’s 500th birthday next year.

Tropical wellbeing

The idea of pampered relaxation is quite new in Cuba, but both the state-run Habana 1791 perfume shop and private businesses have started to light the candles.Habana 1791 (00 53 7 861 3525) offers aromatherapy massages while private sanctums O2 (00 53 7 883 1663; o2habana.com) and Spasio (00 53 5 353 9101) cater to most whims in the capital. Hostal Villa Liba (00 53 24 423823) in Holguín offers yoga, reiki and massage.

Habana 1791 perfumery  

Insider information

“Since the opening of new private-business laws in Cuba, we’ve had the opportunity to go freelance. Lots of tourists like to choose our tours because they can create 100 per  cent of their itinerary to suit their ideas. Thanks to the new opportunities, tourists now have the chance to enjoy real Cuban life and our traditions.”

- Reinier Toscano Orbea, owner of Trinidad Travels  (trinidadtravels.com).

“Sturdy caravels of Columbus, rocking along the blue  sub-tropic latitudes, brought the first tourists to Cuba. As the yellow patched sails fluttered down their spars and the harsh clank of anchor chain broke the peace of that sunny October day in 1492, Cuba made her first conquest of white men’s hearts. Since then, this siren of the Caribbean has lured millions... across the seas within the spell of her langorous beauty.”

- Blue Guide to Cuba 1948

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer the industry can flesh out an existence
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Arts and Entertainment
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable