• Change
MENU
Based on 12160 reviews on Trustpilot
CALL US
020·7962·9933
x
The old and the new

Cuba's new revolution

As Havana opens up to the modern world, this once isolated nation has become the most fascinating of holiday destinations, as Richard Eden discovered

The winds of change have blown strongly in Cuba in recent years, bringing heady days for both the country's creaking authorities and its 11 million inhabitants.

As this sort of modern revolution has ended its isolation from the rest of the western world, Cuba has become one of the most fascinating holiday destinations.

My Spanish wife Montserrat and I were determined to venture first beyond the capital, Havana, to see part of Cuba visited by those adventurous enough to endure a two-and-a-half hour journey, during which vast potholes and wandering chickens are just two hazards.

We were heading for Vinales, a small town in a national park 113 miles west of Havana, known for its limestone mogote hills that look like huge haystacks.


Early morning mist shrouds the prehistoric landscape of Vinales with its limestone mogote hills


Nothing prepared me for this prehistoric landscape. I half expected a tyrannosaurus rex to come charging round the corner. Luckily, the only giant creature we en-countered was a hutia, a massive rodent so tame it happily nibbled on leaves we offered.

The Vinales region is a twitcher's delight, and we saw hummingbirds, mockingbirds and tiny Cuban todies, with their pink flanks and red throats singing a distinctive, soft call of 'pprreeee-pprreeee'.

We were staying in a red-roofed cabin at the state-owned Los Jazmines hotel. The cabin was made of concrete after its wooden predecessor was destroyed by Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

We were here to celebrate a significant birthday for Montserrat. But as she opened our cabin's curtains the next morning and saw the mist rising from the valley below, becoming 40 seemed a breeze.

We visited one of the tobacco fields that produce the crop for the finest cigars in the world. Winston Churchill favoured the Romeo y Julieta brand.


Harvesting tobacco leaves which are made into the finest cigars in the world


Leading grower Ivan Hernandez talked us through the process and showed us how to roll a perfect puro - not using the apocryphal method involving the thighs of a virgin.

Before President Kennedy imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1962, he is said to have asked an aide how long it would take Castro to cave in. 'One year,' the aide replied. 'Well then,' said JFK, 'I want 365 cigars to keep me going.' 

Until the revolution, Cuba was a tropical playground for American gangsters. Al Capone had a holiday home in Varadero, which is where we went next – a 12-mile peninsula of sugary sand two hours' drive to the east of Havana.

There, we stayed at the all-inclusive Grand Memories hotel, full of friendly holidaymakers from Canada, which normalised relations with Cuba in the Seventies.

We hopped in a taxi to La Casa de Al, a restaurant in a villa that once belonged to Capone. The waiter made me an offer I couldn't refuse – of paella, Cuban-style. It was indifferent, but, given that this hoodlum hangout was decorated with photos of Capone and his henchmen, I didn't kick up a fuss.


Al Capone's former villa, now a popular restaurant dedicated to his memory


Varadero's beaches are beautiful. We sunbathed, swam and danced to salsa until it was time to move on to Havana. 

Hard-drinking novelist Ernest Hemingway became indelibly associated with Cuba. He is said to have sunk 12 mojitos in one hour at the tiny La Bodeguita del Medio bar, but we enjoyed just one or two, to the sounds of a Latin band, before moving on to Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Room 511 has been preserved as an atmospheric museum to the author, who lived there for seven years. It's complete with his typewriter and fishing rods.

For a taxi back to our hotel, what better than one of the 60,000 or so classic American cars that survive from before the embargo? Ours was a 1958 cherry-red Dodge Regent, whose driver, Carlos, was old enough to remember life before the revolution. 'People were so poor in the countryside,' he told us. 'Castro improved their lives.'

For 20 pesos (£14), he took us on an idiosyncratic tour of some of Havana's lesser-known attractions, including John Lennon Park, where an elderly lady is employed to give tourists a pair of metal-rimmed glasses to put on the bronze statue of the late Beatle. The government gave her the job after fans kept pinching the Lennon specs.

While Cuba has become more open, it seems determined not to lose its unique character.

'We're not going to have Cuba filled with McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken,' said our guide earnestly. 'We will never let that happen.'

However, as more and more free-spending Americans visit, the pressure to change could well prove overwhelming. All the more reason to go now.  



First published in the Daily Mail -  July 2019

More articles below...


For more inspiration, read what travel writers have to say...

Sailing the high seas

Cruising the Windward islands proved just the ticket for Helen Atkinson Wood

Authentic Cuba

John Hutchinson visits before the island nation changes forever

Stunned by St Lucia

Marina Fogle is dazzled by this corner of the Caribbean

Sun, sea and salsa!

The perfect partners for Bruno Tonioli

St Kitts and Nevis

Wendy Driver puts her best foot forward on a hiking trip

Chilling in Grenada

Samantha Lewis discovers the perfect island to relax

Bliss in the BVIs

Vincent Graff discovers he can do without room keys and TVs

For sun and stars

Follow Wendy Gomersall to the beautiful Bahamas

Spicy Grenada

Renowned chef Rosemary Shrager discovers paradise on a plate

Caribbean cocktail

Grenada packs a punch, as Tamara Hinson discovers

Happy hour

Stephen Macdonald samples deadly cocktails in Jamaica

Art beneath the waves

Rob Crossan discovers sublime beauty in this stunning underwater sculpture gallery

Past Perfect

Tristan Davies finds himself in a luxurious time capsule

Plantation houses

Discover the Caribbean's historic hotels

Bountiful Bequia

Nick Redman reports from the little Caribbean island of Bequia

Batting for Antigua

The Caribbean just bowls you over says Mark Palmer

BREAKING NEWS

Piers Morgan's favourite Caribbean hotel is better than ever

Barbados or Bequia

Hunter Davies has to decide which of two idyllic islands comes out on top

Besotted with Barbados

Sam Tonkin loves everything about this Caribbean idyll

Rock and Royalty

Nigel Tisdall tells you how you can join the St Barths' jet-set

Bowled over by Bequia

Jonathan Agnew unearths a secret Windies gem

Caribbean heaven

Mark Palmer revels in two luxury resorts in the Dominican Republic

Gourmet gala

Jason Arnold delights in the culinary treats of Antigua and St Lucia

Best of Barbados

Fred Mawer's top tips to enjoy this fabulous Caribbean island

In love with St Lucia

Josh Cuthbert, of boy band Union J, knew there was only one place he wanted to celebrate his engagement

Paradise on a plate

The fabulous food of Anguilla has Harry Denning’s tastebuds tingling

Bountiful Barbados

Jack Davidson discovers the island’s greatest treasure

Get fit in paradise

Toni Jones signed up for sun, sea, sand and floating yoga

Serene St Lucia

Ben Bailey finds paradise on gorgeous St Lucia

St Lucian sounds

Nigel Tisdall is dancing to a different beat in St Lucia

Islands of treasure

There's so much more to the Cayman Islands than offshore banking says Sian Boyle

Not quite what you're looking for?
We can easily customise an offer to suit your exact requirements

x