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Quintessential Cuba - Eat Stay and Play

23rd August 2016

Everyone is talking about Cuba and the impending influx of US visitors once the embargo is finally lifted. Travellers worldwide are trying to visit now, before that happens. Why? To get a taste of the real Cuba, a spectacular vibrant and very special island republic in the dreamy Caribbean Sea. They come for the mystery, the history – of pirates, corsairs and poets, of revolutionary heroes and great artists. And, of course, for the music!


Mural of Che Guevara on adobe wall with Cuban flag
Photo: Getty Images

Arriving into Havana is like taking a step back in time to the 1940s or 1950s, and despite Cuba’s tough economic times, one still can’t help but feel a touch of elegance.

Perhaps the charm and class of the glory days still lingers in the air. The unique style of music, which brought fame to the Buena Vista Social Club, among many others, is a mixture of African beats, Spanish guitars and brass. The styles are salsa, son, rumba and bolero and they are brought to life in restaurants, clubs, cafes, and on street corners all over Cuba. Order a mojito and light up a cigar and you may imagine you are hanging out with Hemingway back in the 1940s.

Play In Havana

Old Havana
Wander the streets of ‘Habana Vieja’ and explore the architecture, main squares and various museums. Relax in outdoor cafes to absorb the life and music of the Cubanos and take a stroll along the Malecon, the sea wall, a favourite spot for socialising.

The Footsteps of Hemingway
Visit Ernest’s favourite haunts. Have a daiquiri at El Floridita, a mojito at La Bodeguita Del Medio and lunch at Cojimar, the little seaside village where he was inspired to pen The Old Man and the Sea. Visit room 511 at the Ambos Mundos Hotel where he used to write.

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Cuba cigars and rum, the perfect combination. Photo: Getty Images

Cigars & Rum
Visit a local cigar factory, where the hands of skillful rollers turn tobacco leaves into world-famous Cuban cigars, and then the Rum Museum to see how this delicious spirit is created. With a cigar, a Cuban coffee and a Cuban rum – you will start to feel like a local.

Play Outside Havana

Outside of Havana there is also plenty to see and do. Some destinations are accessible as day trips and others require some travel across the island.

This picturesque city with its French and Spanish architectural heritage is about 250 kilometres from Havana. One of its highlights is the Tomas Terry Theatre, which has staged great performers such as Enrico Caruso and Ana Palova. Sail across the bay to Jaguar Island Fort and feel like a pirate!


The picturesque city of Trinidad
The picturesque city of Trinidad. Photo: Getty Images

Santa Clara
About 280 kilometres from Havana is the site of the last battle and victory of the Cuban revolution. Visit the Ché Guevara Mausoleum, where the remains of the hero are kept, and the Armoured Train Park-Museum where Ché and his men derailed an armoured train carrying soldiers and weapons.

Trinidad, 320 kilometres from Havana, is one of the loveliest cities in Cuba and a another UNESCO World Heritage city. It is brimming with old colonial houses, many still inhabited by descendants of the old families. It has some great homestay options in these historic homes, and a lovely friendly vibe.

Vintage car ride
Cuba is like a mobile classic car museum, with Chevvies, Buicks, Plymouths and Oldsmobiles cruising along the Malecon and around Havana. Take a tour in a vintage car, or even a taxi ride and you will feel like you are back in the 50s.

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Man drives vintage car in Cuba
Cuba is a treasure trove of vintage cars. Photo: Getty Images

Santiago De Cuba
On the eastern end of Cuba, the second largest city is known as the Cradle of the Revolution. Santiago has a more Caribbean feel and has produced some of Cuba’s great talents, including Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Eliades Ochoa, of Buena Vista Social Club fame.

Stay in Havana

Havana caters for all styles and budgets. Stay in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) in one of the older colonial gems, if you are keen to explore the nooks and crannies of the old city. The districts of Vedado and Miramar offer the modern style Melias and of course, the old famous Hotel Nacional.

Hotel Raquel
Raquel is a special boutique hotel in Old Havana, and the only Jewish-themed hotel in Cuba. A delight for history and culture lovers, the building was originally a warehouse for textiles, which is hard to imagine once you venture inside. Worth a visit even if you are staying elsewhere.

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A boutique style hotel in Old Havana
A beautiful boutique style hotel in Old Havana. Photo: Palacio O'Farrill

Hotel Nacional
This grand old hotel, opened in 1930, is a National Monument, on the Atlantic Coast in Vedado District. It has drawn the rich and the famous over decades – a photographic history of its guests can be found in one of the elegant salons. Cocktails on the terrace are a must!

Palacio O’Farrill
This boutique-style hotel In Old Havana is a three-story neo-Classical building with an Irish heritage. The O’Farrill family arrived in Cuba in the 1700s and made their fortune in sugar. The hotel’s courtyard is a perfect haven for unwinding after a day’s exploring.

Melia Cohiba
This modern, elegant hotel is in Vedado, a residential and business district on the shores of the Havana Waterfront. Built in 1994, it attracts more business travellers, but offers ample leisure facilities and restaurants and the Habana Cafe, attached to the hotel, has a thrilling cabaret.

Saratoga, built in 1933, is a beautiful hotel on the outskirts of Old Havana. It’s all about spacious rooms, velvet furnishings, mosaic tiled bathrooms and contemporary art. From the rooftop bar, soak in the stunning sights of the Capitol Building, Grand Theatre and Partagas Cigar Factory.

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Melia Habana
Located in the residential and business district of Miramar, the Melia Habana is ideal for luxury travellers. ‘The Level’ floor offers special personalised service, exclusivity and complete privacy.

Iberostar Parque Central
The Parque Central is another great hotel in Old Havana. You have the choice of staying in the colonial section or the modern tower. It offers lovely rooms in a prime location on Central Park, with the Museum of Fine Arts, the Capitol Building and the Great Theatre of Havana all nearby.


Scenic palm trees and pool at Cuba poolside hotel Melia Las Americas
Melia Las Americas, a golf and convention resort. Photo: Melia Las Americas

Stay in Varadero

Varadero is Cuba’s leading beach resort and a haven of luxurious beachfront hotels overlooking white sands and turquoise waters. Some are adult-only and others are great for families, with activities for kids. These properties are all part of the Sol Melia group. All properties are ‘all-inclusive’ which means that meals and drinks are included.

Melia Las Americas
Las Americas is a golf and convention resort located between the Varadero Golf Club and the Plaza America Convention Centre. Ideal for golf enthusiasts, this hotel has exclusive direct access to Varadero Golf Club and special benefits for golfers. It is an ‘adults only’ property and part of the Las Americas Resort.

Paradisus Princesa del Mar
This ‘adults only’ resort is tropical luxury at its best, with 630 rooms, eight restaurants, 10 bars and three lagoon-style swimming pools. It has all the usual gym and spa features as well. Try a Garden Master Junior suite with direct swim up access to the pool.


Paradisus Varadero Hotel, an eco resort at Punta Frances. Photo: Paradisus Varadero Hotel

Paradisus Varadero
This eco-resort is located at Punta Frances in one of the best zones of Varadero. Paradisus Varadero caters for couples, honeymooners and families. If you want to go all out, take a Master Junior Suite or Garden Villa with private swimming pool and direct access to the beach.

Melia Varadero
Melia Varadero is one of the original Melias here and has been designed to accommodate, honeymooners, golfers and families. It is part of the Las Americas Resort, along with Melia Las Americas.

Eat in Havana

Cuba is not renowned for its cuisine, but Cubans manage to use what ingredients are available to create traditional Cuban fare with some very interesting names; Ropa Vieja (old clothes), Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) and Vaca Frita (Fried cow). A popular option is to dine at a paladar, a private dining room run by a local family.

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Ropa Vieja, a Cuban dish of stewed beef and vegetables
Ropa Vieja, a Cuban dish of stewed beef and vegetables. Photo: Getty Images

Paladar Dona Eutimia
Paladar Dona Eutimia is in the arts district of Old Havana and serves up traditional Cuban fare such as black beans, ropa vieja (shredded beef) and arroza a la cubana (rice with eggs, bananas and a tomato sauce), among many other Cuban criolla dishes.

Cafe del Oriente
The grand Cafe del Oriente is located right on Plaza de San Francisco and is a bit posh! Filet mignon, lobster thermidor, caviar, flaming crepes. Sounds like the grand old days. With luck, you may be entertained by the resident, charming, elderly singer and piano man.

La Cava Restaurant & Wine Cellar – Camaguey
If you do cross the island, there is a ‘not to be missed’ restaurant in Camaguey. Quite upmarket and elegant with interesting decor of wine barrels and the like, it’s the perfect setting for some tapas and wine. Try the carpaccio.

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Cuban dish of fried meat onions and rice
More delicious Cuban cuisine - Vaca Frita

Cafe Taberna
Dine and groove to the sounds of notable bands, singing the tunes of the late great Benny Moré. It is popular with tourists, so perhaps the vibe is not so local, but the food is good and the atmosphere is lively and you may learn a little about old Benny.

Jardin Del Eden
Jardin del Eden (Garden of Eden), in the amazing Hotel Raquel, offers traditional Jewish dishes, which include Hungarian goulash and Israeli salad. If the cuisine is not your first choice, you will still enjoy the experience for the setting alone.

Rum Rum
This is a quaint restaurant with delicious food and amazing cocktails. Try the Mahi Mahi or any of the seafood dishes. The ropa vieja is also a highlight. Oh and don’t forget to have a rum.

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Tempting bowl of meat and vegetables
El Chanchullero, a hole in the wall restaurant with delicious tapas and mains. Photo: El Chanchullero

El Chanchullero
A hole in the wall in old Havana, this is a small bar restaurant with Spanish tapas and chicken, pork and seafood dishes. The music is loud and lively and you can entertain yourself by reading the walls with their graffiti and photos.

La Terraza de Cojimar
La Terraza on Cojimar Bay was Ernest Hemingway’s favourite restaurant as can be seen by the photos on the walls, including Gregorio, his inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea. It is of course all about the fish – lash out and go for the lobster!

Drink in Havana

Cuba is a haven for those who enjoy a cocktail and there are so many bars to explore, most with live music. Rum is the staple, served up as daiquiris, mojitos, pina coladas and more. The beer is also great. Be a pirate and order a Bucanero!

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Cocktails on a bar
Cuba is a haven for cocktail lovers. Photo: Getty Images

Sloppy Joe’s Bar
This place was legendary back in the 1950s and saw the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, John Wayne and of course old Ernest, partying the nights away. You’ll feel like you’re there with them as their pictures adorn the walls. Great rum collection.

Valdes Jazz
One of Cuba’s jazz greats, Lazaro Valdes, owns this intimate venue in the Vedado district. Enjoy a few drinks and live music every night with local musicians playing salsa and jazz.

303 & 304 O’Reilly
The original 304 and just-opened 303 O’Reilly are the new hip restaurant-bars in Havana. The seafood is divine and the daiquiris are even better. The venues are near each other and are both buzzing day and night. 303 has a rooftop bar.

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Cuban tango club red lights, palm tree in pot, empty
A Cuban Tango club waiting for the night to begin. Photo: Getty Images

El Gato Tuerto
Near the Hotel Nacional, El Gato Tuerto (the One-Eyed Cat) is a groovy little cafe bar with live music on Fridays and Saturdays, tilted towards bolero and a little jazz.

Piano Bar Delirio Habanero
Delirio Habanero atop the Teatro Nacional offers something different to experience each night, from traditional to salsa, along with great views, music and lovely cocktails.

The Yellow Submarine
Named after the Beatles’ classic, you’ll find local bands playing Beatles covers and people of all ages dropping in for a drink and a dance.

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Cocktail shots with chilli pepper
Nightlife with a spicy twist. Photo: Getty Images

El Floridita
While in Havana you must go to El Floridita, Hemingway’s favourite haunt for a daiquiri. There is even a statue of the man himself leaning up against the bar. It’s a little bit of a touristy thing – but do it anyway!

La Bodeguita del Medio
Head to La Bodeguita Del Medio, Hemingway’s preferred place for a mojito. It’s covered in graffiti and photos of Hemingway and other famous contributors to Havana’s sultry past.

Bar Bohemio
Former ballerinas own this elegant bar in a spacious mansion in the Vedado District. Let the lounges swallow you up, relax, play board games and enjoy the tropical vibe.

Chan Chan
Get out of the city and head to Marina Hemingway for a relaxed evening of dinner and dancing, overlooking the water. Always a band and locals dancing the night away.