Leaving a damp, dark UK on 21 January (Thursday) we were anticipating 12 days of sunshine, sea and sand, with a little bit of Cuban culture thrown in for good measure.
After flying with Virgin Airways, who sadly messed up our seat reservations,but that is another story, we landed in a dark wet Cuba – what was going wrong! The culprit was storm Henry (that dumped all that snow in America and then hit Scotland hard) which started in the Caribbean and Cuba received a royal drenching during its usual dry season. Our flight had been delayed so we were too late for dinner reservations for that night so had a salad in the hotel bar before retiring – expensive but tasty.
The Hotel Capri has only recently reopened after a complete restoration, having been mothballed for a number of years. While it was clean, the standard of finish falls well short of the luxury status it claims to hold. The buffet breakfasts were excellent and the staff across the hotel were polite and efficient. However the rooms were lacking in comforts while the prices in the bar were astronomical. They do not advertise their exchange rate, nor give a receipt and the rate is very poor – but at 9pm and with the bar only accepting cash we had no choice but to exchange some money. We had also been assured it would be easy to get to the old town: though this transpired to be either by taxi or a walk of an hour plus along streets I would not wish to walk at night, not because I ever felt unsafe, but these pot-holed streets are just not well lit enough for secure footing in the dark.
Friday morning we had to postpone our walking tour due to torrential rain and in the gaps in the rain we explored the local area. There is little around the Hotel Capri apart from the National Hotel which was beautiful and of the standard we had anticipated at the Capri. In the afternoon we ventured a little further afield and visited the National Museum of Decorative Arts which was very good value, well presented and very interesting. We also located a paladar (private restaurant) we had read about called Porto Habana and we made reservations for that evening. This entailed walking up 11 flights of stairs as the lift was out of action during the day, but by evening was back in operation and we had an excellent meal (prawns, squid and lobster), with delicious cocktails and an excellent view over the city. We made a repeat reservation for the Saturday.
Saturday morning dawned no longer raining but so windy. The Malecon (main seaside route to the old city) was shut due to the waves crashing over the seawall so we walked into town down the old streets past houses in varying states of disrepair and roads that were also in need of some t.l.c., but with happy people and music.
Shops often consisted of merely one open window and would be selling just one or two items and cafes selling sandwiches and coffee. In the old town we searched out the offices of Cuba Direct, our local agents, (another long story) and we were able to rearrange our walking tour for a week Sunday when we would be back in Havana and made a booking for the Buena Vista Social club on our last night in Cuba. We spent the afternoon on the open top bus tour which took us through the old town, out to the Plaza de la Revolution, passing the Necropolis Cristobel Colon and onto Miramar. The storm was still blowing and we were unable to use much of the coast road but the tour was well worth the 10CUC and we walked back to our hotel just before another huge rainstorm. This resulted in flooding in parts of our Vedado district and much of the area lost power when sea water got into the mains by the major Hotel Principe. We discovered this included the tower block where the Porto Habana was located so we tried a restaurant near the Hotel Capri. I wouldn’t recommend ‘Le Roc’, it was satisfactory but no more.
On Sunday the weather was much clearer and we were able to walk down to the seafront and actually see part of the Malecon coastal strip road before a taxi took us to Cienfuegos where we boarded the Star Clipper for the next 7 nights. The journey was interesting, our driver explained, in faltering English, some of the sights and provided a fascinating running social commentary on the police, the state, the transport system and life in Cuba.
The Star Clipper was just as we had left her two years ago, superbly maintained, spotlessly clean, delicious food and cheerfully manned. Over the course of the next seven days we were to sail from Cienfuegos out to Cayo Rico, onto Punta Frances, Isla de la Juventud, then Maria La Gorda. A day at sea before arriving in Grand Cayman then back to Cayo Largo before returning to Cienfuegos. The weather continued to be hit and miss with scattered very heavy rain showers, cloud cover, wind and sun. Luckily the sailing never got uncomfortable and we were able to visit all landings, though the beach barbeque and all the snorkelling and sea based excursions were cancelled. Unfortunately I picked up a tummy bug and spent two days in the cabin. I cannot speak highly enough of the nurse who was kind and caring offering good advice.
The beaches at all the landings were beautiful golden white sands and the waters clean and clear. At Cayo Rico we saw a sting ray swimming along the sea edge and a star fish as big as a dinner plate. The shells at Punta Frances were beautiful and we saw our first iguana of the holiday. The washed up sea urchin shells at Maria La Gorda were beautiful and the beach sandy and smooth. Grand Cayman was different – modern and geared to the tourist trade. Cayo Largo was a beautiful island, the white sand beach and warm blue sea were complimented with a turtle sanctuary and dolphin swim school and numerous fish around the marina.
One week later we were back at Cienfuegos and in a taxi returning to Havana. The weather had finally settled down to a more Cuban norm and we finally were able to undertake the walking tour of old Havana. This began with an open-top ride in a 1950s classic Cadillac car and then a wander around the old town with a guide who knew the history of the town so well. We returned to the Hotel Capri in a bicitaxi – very good value. That night another oldie auto took us to the Buena Vista Social club where we had a truly excellent evening’s entertainment, with some of the original stars performing on stage, despite their ages of 80+.
Monday morning, once packed, we returned to the old town and found a restaurant overlooking the Plaza Vieja, where we sat on the balcony eating lobster and drinking cocktails followed by delicious chocolate/vanilla ice cream. An excellent end to the holiday.
We had a good holiday, despite some problems that have been followed up with travel companies. Would I recommend Cuba as a place to visit? Yes, definitely. You will be made welcome by the locals. There is good food to be had, delicious cocktails, catchy music, eye-catching cars, interesting architecture, beautiful beaches, aqua-blue seas and, for us but I hope not for you, breath taking storms!