Fifties cars, fat cigars, salsa hips and mojitos by the bucket load - there is nowhere quite like Cuba. Jo Cooke reports.
Cuba seems to be casting a spell on British visitors, with operators seeing a significant rise in bookings. Hayes & Jarvis reports a 10% year-on-year increase in sales, with Cosmos, Gold Medal and Caribtours also seeing a sizeable increase in demand. H&J and Cosmos are both adding new hotels for 2012.
Caribtours, meanwhile, has extended its programme to keep pace with the growing interest for not just sun, sea and sand, but culture, too, adding a private escorted touring programme and a luxury catamaran cruise.
The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba lies just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys and to the north of Jamaica. Its strength seems to lie in its diversity. The quintessentially Caribbean beaches wow visitors, and the icing on the cake is the colonial heritage, Latin vibe and natural beauty. This unique combination can give clients the feeling they’re getting two for the price of one.
As Katherine Hobbs, product manager for Cuba at Caribtours, puts it: “Cuba is different from any other island in the Caribbean. It has a fascinating history and while Havana is completely captivating with its old colonial grandeur, the rest of the island offers the chance to explore mountainous rainforests, nature reserves and hundreds of unspoilt beaches.”
Kim Barber, product manager, Cosmos Holidays, adds: “Cuba suits clients who are interested in seeing the culture and history of a destination combined with a beach stay, and this is reflected in our most popular package – a twin-centre holiday in Varadero, which offers excellent water sports, and Havana, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and one of the most exciting cities in the world.”
The UK is Cuba’s biggest European market and the tourist board is pushing for continued growth. “We have an ongoing campaign ‘Auténtica Cuba’ that is running throughout the UK,” says Rogelio Curbelo, director of the Cuba Tourist Board. This includes online coverage at Frommers.com and Bbc.com, ads on Google and Sky News and posters in taxis in London and Manchester. And the strategy is working. “By the end of September we had a 5% increase in British visitors to Cuba in comparison to the same period in 2010,” says Curbelo.
There’s increased airlift to the country, too. In November Virgin Atlantic added a third service on Saturdays during the winter months, until April 2012, and KLM started operating flights to Cuba in October.
Cuba is a vibrant and alluring destination, but Hobbs adds a word of caution: “Agents need to manage clients’ expectations. They need to be prepared as the service levels may not be as high as in other destinations. However, if visitors are prepared to look beyond this, they’ll find a holiday in Cuba to be immensely rewarding.”
One thing is certain – clients fall for Cuba. It has all the charms of any other Caribbean island – friendly people, a laid-back atmosphere and a perfect beach climate – plus a ‘special something’ that keeps Cuba lovers returning year after year for more.
Welcome to Havana
If clients have even a passing interest in history, culture and sightseeing, book them at least a day trip to Havana. You can wander through the narrow cobbled streets and piazzas of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), while being serenaded by the salsa and son music that seems to drift from every cafe and doorway.
Visiting a cigar factory is a must, as is seeking out writer Ernest Hemingway’s old haunt La Bodeguita del Medio. Order a mojito, his favourite cocktail, then take a ride in a 1950s classic car to the Malecón, the city’s waterfront that’s lined with shabby-chic colonial houses.
The best way to end your day is to dance the night away at a salsa club or watch the dancing girls and strapping male performers at the elaborate, passionate floor show at the Tropicana night club.
Life's a beach
Varadero, Cuba’s best-known beach resort, has been hitting the spot with the all-inclusive market for years. Set on a peninsula that meets turquoise ocean, Varadero has 23-miles of dream-like sugar-white sand beaches backed by resort hotels, bars and shops. It’s also conveniently close to Havana, just two hours’ drive away, making this an ideal spot for a twin-centre seaside and city holiday.
Those looking for a beach escape that’s a little more laid-back and less developed could venture instead to Cayo Santa Maria or Cayo Ensenachos. Lying off the north coast of central Cuba, these idyllic keys form part of the Jardines del Rey (Garden of Kings) archipelago, and are linked to the mainland by a scenic causeway. Both islands boast virgin sand beaches, while mangrove swamps, grasslands and channels between the islets are a haven for birdlife including flamingos and herons.
The surrounding reefs have an abundance of tropical fish making this an ideal spot for snorkelling and fishing, too. From here clients can venture to the stunning colonial town of Trinidad. While diminutive in comparison to Havana, its charming cobbled streets boast colonial Spanish mansions and brightly-painted houses aplenty. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it’s one of the best preserved colonial cities in the world.
While Havana is a must, it’s just the start of what Cuba has to offer those who love history, architecture and getting off the beaten track. Hayes & Jarvis’ escorted tour Highlights of Cuba includes the key sights of Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, with its grand, French-influenced buildings and wide boulevards.
Caribtours’ Cuba Uncovered also includes these three cities, but on a private tour for each booking. A beach break can be added to either tour with a choice of Varadero or the Cayos. While itineraries covering western Cuba are the most popular, clients who have ‘been-there-done-that’ could head east instead.
Kuoni’s Enchanting Cuba and specialist operator Havanatour’s Cradle of the Revolution tours include a journey through glorious countryside to the coastal town of Baracoa, which was the first Spanish settlement in Cuba, and the country’s captivating second city, Santiago de Cuba, renowned for its musical heritage.
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