There’s never been a better time to get intimate with this Caribbean enigma, says Jo Cooke
With the energy of a Club Tropicana showgirl and the endurance of one of the 1950s Chevrolets that cruise the streets of Havana, Cuba is an island with its own special brand of magic.
Its neighbours – Jamaica to the south, and the Dominican Republic to the east – have big personalities, but that doesn’t faze Cuba. It has the beaches, music, mountains, nature and colonial cities to match, plus a seductive x-factor – a stubborn charm that comes from continuing to party while living under a communist regime and American embargo.
There’s a whiff of change in the air, though. “The Cubans are improving the existing infrastructure, golf courses, hotels and attractions, making this a great time to visit,” says Cosmos product manager Kim Barber.
“Choices and the quality of service are improving,” adds Abraham Bravo, general manager at Cuba Direct. “There’s been an increase in private enterprises, including restaurants. Other businesses are also opening slowly, such as the Old American Car city excursion that we recommend. From later this year, the main – and only – car rental company is receiving new vehicles, plus more hotels are providing internet access for tourists.”
As exciting as these improvements are, it’s likely they’ll erase some of Cuba’s shabby-chic character. “Everyone should try to visit Cuba while it is still cut off from commercial influences,” says Claire Reynolds, commercial and product manager at Kuoni. “This is a large part of what makes it a unique holiday destination.”
SEE: TWIN CULTURE AND BEACH
Many clients will have dipped their toe into the waters of Varadero, the big boy of beach resorts. If all they want is typecast Caribbean – white sand, turquoise water, great-value all-inclusive – then your job is done.
But for anyone with the slightest twinkle of adventure in their eyes, book a side trip to Havana. In this king of Caribbean capitals, they’ll find monuments to revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, streets lined with neo-classical, colonial and baroque architecture, a charismatic waterfront, elegant piazzas, cigar factories and salsa clubs full of snake-hipped locals.
Varadero and Havana are the classic Cuban twin-centre cocktail, but as clients keep coming back, operators have added more beach and-city combos.
In central Cuba, clients can get a culture kick in Trinidad followed by a beach fix in Cayos Coco or Guillermo. Trinidad’s old town centre is like an open-air museum: pastel-coloured colonial mansions edge the main square, and the spires of the monastery and church rise above terracotta-coloured roofs and palm trees. On the coast, Cayos Coco and Guillermo are all dunes and swathes of white sand meeting baby-blue ocean. Bravo also recommends their lesser known neighbour, Cayo Santa Maria, for romantic breaks.
Heading east, Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, with its buzzing music scene and revolution history, can be teamed up with Guardalavaca, the east coast’s Varadero. Other cultural highlights include the city of Santa Clara, site of the end of the Revolution; Cienfuegos, a well-preserved colonial maritime town; and Vinales Valley, a landscape ofmountains and tobacco plantations.
STAY: HERITAGE OR BRAND
Characterful and quirky city hotels can be real lookers, set in colonial buildings with roof terraces or tropical foliage-edged inner courtyards, such as at the splendid Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which also faces Havana’s Malecon waterfront promenade.
On the coasts, quality brands such as Sandals, Melia and Iberostar rule the roost with their all-inclusive packages, extensive facilities and full entertainment programmes.
There are also whispers of changes afoot. Bravo says: “The rumour is, casas particulares (private inns) will soon be made more widely available to tour operators, which will increase current accommodation capacity and offer a more intimate and authentic experience, particularly in destinations where there are a limited number of hotels. Some of these beautiful colonial houses are equivalent to a four-star hotel and hosts cook creole meals.”
SELL: EXTRA SPICE
Cuba has all the basic Caribbean ingredients; all you have to do is spice it up to suit clients’ tastes. You can sell them a quiet beach resort that feels like paradise lost, or a busy one backed by a line of hotels and with watersports galore. Throw in a day trip, or a couple of nights, in the city closest to their seaside hangout, or reverse the recipe with four nights in Havana and three to chill out after their urban safari.
The market reflects this trend of clients wanting to see more: operators such as Hayes & Jarvis and Caribtours feature escorted tours of Cuba, while Cosmos Holidays’ seven-night Cuban Splendours tour is particularly appealing for nature lovers, taking in the Sierra Del Rosario Mountains, Vinales Valley and Las Terrazas. Kuoni’s 11-night Enchanting Cuba includes Havana, Santiago de Cuba and a few days’ relaxation in Guardalavaca.
Cuba Direct is also appealing to the independent-minded. “We are proud to be promoting a self-drive holiday with prepaid hotel vouchers. You can drive all over the country at your own pace,” says Bravo. The specialist operator also caters for niche markets with tailor-made music, architecture, diving, salsa dancing and revolution-themed holidays.
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