The Complete Guide To: Cuba in style

Fifty years after the seeds of the Revolution were sown, this island is finally starting to flower as a luxury holiday destination, say Simon Calder and Cathy Packe


ARE SOME TOURISTS MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS?

Yes, and for the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was the holiday destination of choice for many well-heeled Americans, happy to enjoy the good life on the Caribbean's largest island at a time when many of the local people were living in poverty.

Fifty years ago today, a cabin cruiser named Granma landed in the south-east of Cuba. Her passengers were revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, who went on to win a famous victory against the island's dictator - and the US interests that lay behind him. Some Cubans (the disaffected, disinherited and dissident) say that the rot set in on 2 December 1956, and that Cuba has patently failed to achieve its potential over the past half-century. But despite decades of state communism, today Cuba offers more options for luxurious holidays than ever.

The island has far more depth and diversity than other Caribbean islands, and the culture has been preserved by the increasingly absurd-looking US economic embargo, which prevents Americans from travelling to Cuba. The Cuban people's rich heritage of music, dance and religion stands in stark contrast to the poverty into which their beautiful country has sunk - as do the new hotels, spa facilities and golf courses that are taking shape at a frantic rate, following Fidel Castro's oft-repeated acknowledgement that "Only tourism can save Cuba".

Despite embracing the tourist dollar - or, these days, euro - and the expansion of the top end of the market, Cuba doesn't yet offer the consistency of other Caribbean islands, however.

"As a country, Cuba is intoxicating, charming, but it is idiosyncratic - it's not always possible to do everything in a luxurious way," says Jenny Geal of Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). "And you need to know it's quirky - don't go if you want everything to happen on time."

CAN I GET THERE IN STYLE?

Yes, in Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com), thanks to the airline's new twice-weekly route from Gatwick to Havana; flights depart on Sunday and Thursday. The full fare starts at £3,248, but you can easily find a special deal as part of an inclusive holiday - such as those offered by Virgin Holidays (0870 990 4205; www.virginholidays.co.uk). The standard each-way upgrade fee is £665, which, added to some excellent all-inclusive hotel deals in and around Havana, means you should be able to find a week's holiday for under £2,000, including Upper-Class flights - as long as you avoid Christmas/New Year.

If Virgin's economy class is classy enough for you, The Cuba Experience (020-7644 1770; www.theholidayplace.co.uk) offers a week at the three-star Club Amigo in Varadero from £619, with departures available in December and January. Prices include economy flights and full-board accommodation.

Cubana, the national airline (01293 596677; www.cubana.cu), had a dismal safety record in the last part of the 20th century, but has not had a fatal crash for nearly seven years. It now flies Boeing 767s twice weekly from Gatwick to Havana via Holguin. Economy class is £461 return through South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk).

The flight time to the Cuban capital is long, at just over 12 hours, but you can hop off at Holguin and explore revolutionary Cuba - where the rebels began their struggle. They were led by a young lawyer, Fidel Castro, who had been exiled by the Cuban government and was assisted by an Argentine doctor, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Fifty years ago, Castro, Guevara and 80 other rebels landed from Mexico and began the revolution. (You can see Granma, the cruiser on which the rebels arrived, outside the stylish Museum of the Revolution on Calle Refugio, on the edge of Old Havana.)

"A shipwreck, not a landing" is how Guevara later described it. Castro had attempted to topple the old regime some three years earlier, when he tried to storm the Moncada Barracks on Avenida de los Libertadores in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second city. The building is now a museum, the Museo Historico 26 de Julio, and the attack on the barracks is commemorated each year, in the last week of July, by the Santiago carnival.

Despite its size and national importance, Santiago is less developed, at least with regards to tourism, than the capital. But there are a number of good places to stay, including the Hotel Santiago de Cuba on Avenida de las Americas (00 53 2268 7070; www.solmelia.com). Conveniently located just outside the city centre, it has well-equipped rooms as well as several bars and restaurants.

Alternatively, combine a visit to Santiago with a few nights at Paradisus Rio de Oro, an all-inclusive hotel (00 53 243 0090; www.solmelia.com) that is far superior to the average resort. Located at Playa Esmeralda, not far from Guardalavaca, it's easily accessible from Holguin airport.

IF I TAKE A PLANE TO HAVANA?

You'll arrive at José Marti airport on the south-west outskirts of the capital. Like many places on the island, it is named after Cuba's 19th-century liberation fighter and national poet. Havana is the most magnificent Spanish colonial city in the Americas - and the most exciting. Two million people live exuberantly in the Caribbean's largest capital. The city has an increasingly good choice of upmarket hotels, many of them landmarks that have played a part in the city's history. These include the Hotel Nacional, a national monument on the corner of Calle 0 and Calle 21 (00 53 7836 3564; www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com). A stylish 1930s building, it has its own gardens close to the sea.

Many of the city's old buildings and historic sites are being restored and converted into hotels, among them the smartest hotel in the capital, the Saratoga, at Prado 603 (00 53 7868 1000; www.hotel-saratoga.com). It opened in November last year, on the site of a 1930s hotel of the same name. The new version is a modern establishment, built behind the original neoclassical façade, and its facilities include two restaurants, a pool and gym.

Also recently renovated is the Hotel Raquel (00 53 7860 8280; www.habaguanex.com), once an art- nouveau warehouse, it is now a 25-room hotel. Alternatively, Jenny Geal, the Cuba expert at Journey Latin America, recommends the Ambos Mundos at Calle Obispo 153. "According to legend, this is where Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls," she says. He stayed in room 511, which has been left much as it was when the writer was in residence, "and the chambermaids will usually allow you to wander around," says Jenny.

She has another tip if you want to stay outside the capital itself. "I love La Moka, an 'ecolodge' west of Havana, in the beautiful countryside around Las Terrazas. It's not luxurious, but it is unique as it is surrounded by forest in the Sierra del Rosario Nature Reserve. Facilities include a swimming pool and lovely landscaped gardens.

Back in Havana, there are some good restaurants to try, although Cuba isn't particularly known for its haute cuisine. An increasing number are privately owned and are known as "paladares". Among the best is La Guarida, at Calle Concordia 418 (00 53 7264 4940; www.laguarida.com), which offers a fine range of Cuban cuisine, from traditional to modern.

La Cocina de Lilliam, at Calle 48 1311 (00 53 7209 6514), started as a family-run enterprise and has developed into one of the most successful restaurants in Havana, loved by the international in-crowd, who also frequent El Ajibe, on Avenida 7, between 24 and 26, known for its Creole cooking and traditional rice and black beans.

CAN I TRAVEL AROUND IN STYLE?

That depends how you define "style". If it includes 1950s Chevrolets and Studebakers, you're in the right place. And while many of these pre-Revolution cars are in disrepair, the rental agency Gran Car (00 53 733 5647) has a fleet of old US cars that have been done up for tourists and can be rented for $15 (£8) an hour. Expect to pay $90 (£46) for one day, $70 (£36) a day if you rent for at least five days.

An alternative is to take the Tocororo Classic Tour, offered by Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). This is the first time that Cuba has been included in the company's selection of classic - ie luxury - products. Transport on this nine-night trip is in classic Buicks and Cadillacs from the 1960s, and there are regular departures during 2007. Prices start at £1,662, and include flights, transport, bed and breakfast accommodation and some excursions.

If time is short, it's worth noting that Aerocaribbean (00 53 7879 7524; www.aero-caribbean.com) offers "dollar flights" between Havana and the main tourist destinations, including Santiago and Holguin, using a fleet of Western-built planes. And there are now some "hard currency" buses running between the principal places of interest, for which you don't need to book months in advance (but try to book a good few days ahead). The biggest and best company is Viazul (00 53 7881 1413; www.viazul.cu).

A CRUISE?

Cuba is off the mainstream Caribbean cruise circuit because of US laws designed to deflect shipping companies from the island. But there are a few options, including Fred Olsen Cruise Lines (01473 746175; www.fredolsencruises.com), which includes Cuba in some of its Caribbean cruises. Among these are the Christmas cruise, a 15-night trip on the Braemar, which begins with a flight on 21 December from Gatwick or Manchester to Bermuda, and includes a stop in Santiago de Cuba. Prices for this trip start at £1,295 per person.

A two-day stop in Havana is included in the 48-night Latin America cruise on the Boudicca, which leaves Southampton on 21 January, returning on 10 March. Prices start at £2,595, and an outside superior cabin costs £3,345 per person. Voyages of Discovery (01444 462150; www.voyagesofdiscovery.com) has availability on its 21-night Christmas cruise, departing on 8 December from Barcelona, and arriving on Boxing Day in Havana for a two-night stay before passengers fly home. Prices, which include flights to Barcelona and back from Havana, start at £1,732. Cuba is included on several other cruises during 2007, in combination with the Galapagos Islands and the Panama Canal.

WHAT IS THE JEWEL IN FIDEL'S CROWN?

Trinidad, the colonial gem of Cuba. Many of the town's streets are still cobbled, paved with the stone used as ballast in the ships of early Spanish traders. This small and beautiful city has some of Cuba's best museums, clustered around an exquisite main square - including one, the National Museum of the Struggle against the Insurgents, devoted to the battle waged against counter-revolutionaries. The museum is on Calle del Cristo esquina Boca (00 53 419 4121), and opens daily except Monday.

Camilla Taylor, a Cuba specialist with the tour operator South American Experience (0870 499 0683; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk), recommends Trinidad as a base for a trip to central Cuba. "It's great because it's a colonial city but also has a beautiful beach," she says. Playa Ancon is, indeed, a pleasant sandy bay, ideal for snorkelling and other water sports, on a small peninsula 10 minutes from the city centre. Camilla Taylor recommends staying in the city centre, however, at the newly opened Iberostar Grand Hotel, which offers a high standard of facilities and is located in a charming and beautifully restored colonial building.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

Right now. Cuba has a hot, subtropical climate. The dry season is between now and April, after which it becomes extremely hot. And once Fidel finally fades from the picture, the US will drop the economic embargo that, for four decades, has deprived Americans of the right to take vacations in Cuba. With 300 million prospective visitors on the island's doorstep, the ending of the embargo will open the floodgates and change Cuba irrevocably.

IS THERE MUCH RED TAPE?

Once you're in, you don't need to say where you intend to stay each night, and you can travel freely all over the island. You will need a tourist card (£15), which is issued as a matter of course by package- holiday companies or specialist agents, or can be acquired from the Cuban Consulate in London (167 High Holborn, WC1; 020-7240 2488; cuba.embassyhomepage.com). It is valid for 30 days, but can be extended in Cuba for a further 30 days.

If you are travelling independently and have not made any accommodation reservations, the immigration official may insist that you book a couple of nights at an expensive hotel before you're allowed through. The tourist card won't suffice if you are travelling on business; in this case, you will need a visa, which is obtainable from the consulate for £49.99.

ANOTHER PRESIDENTE, PLEASE

Rum, red vermouth, grenadine, and ice cubes, stirred, is the recipe for the presidente - one of the many classic cocktails that Cuba has given the world. Yet it was named not after Dr Castro but after President Mario Garcia Menocal, who also liked a tipple. Similarly, the Cuba libre (rum, cola and ice cubes, stirred) was invented to toast Cuba's independence from Spain in 1902, rather than the Revolution of the late 1950s. The daiquiri (rum, lemon juice, sugar, maraschino and crushed ice - often flavoured with fruit, shaken) was created around the same time.

Bartenders at La Floridita, on the corner of Calles Obispo and Monserrate in Havana (00 53 7867 1299; www.floridita-cuba.com), were afforded plenty of practice in daiquiri-making when Ernest Hemingway was a regular, and, at the nearby Bodeguita del Medio, at Calle Empedrado 207 (00 53 757 1375), the writer would switch to mojitos (rum, lemon juice, sugar, soda water, fresh mint, and ice cubes, stirred).

A couple more for the road? A Havana special (rum, maraschino, pineapple juice, crushed ice, shaken), and the saoco (rum, coconut milk, crushed ice, stirred), which has been described as a "milkshake with a kick".

Observant readers will have noticed that rum features in all of these cocktails, being one of the island's world-famous products, along with cigars. Younger (and lighter) rum is the type primarily used for cocktails. The ageing process is carried out in white-oak barrels. Old Havana has a rum museum, the Museo del Ron (00 53 762 4108; www.havanaclubfoundation.com), located in an 18th-century palace and open daily, 9am-5.30pm.

SPLASHING OUT - BUT HOW?

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the Nineties forced the Cuban government to embrace foreign currency and make legal the acceptance of US dollars: in fact, in recent times the inflow of American currency was what kept the country going. Until last month most tourists hardly ever had need or use for pesos. However, in a move said to be a response to the tightening of the embargo by the US government, as of last month US dollars were no longer to be freely accepted in Cuba.

Cuba has another currency, the Convertible Peso (CUC), effectively on a par with the pre-deadline dollar, and there is still much confusion. Converting US dollars to CUC's attracts a 10 per cent surcharge: converting sterling or euros doesn't, but you will get a poor rate. Some places still happily accept cash dollars. In this guide we continue to use dollar amounts for comparison purposes. The acceptance of credit cards (as long as they're not issued by American banks) is getting wider.

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