Cuba has been one of the Caribbean’s hotspots for the past couple of years, attracting ever more Brits who want to see this relic of the Cold War before everything changes.
According to the UK tourist office, more Brits visited Cuba in the first 10 months of last year – 165,338 – than in the whole of 2004. They are also drawn by its fabulous beaches, abundance of low-cost all-inclusive resort hotels and its culture and history.
Thomas Cook director of product and publishing Tony Hopkins said: “New visitors and repeat clients are keen to explore more of the island. Twin-centres with Havana are popular, as are deep sea fishing trips. Despite being a long-haul destination, seven-night stays sell well, as do 14 nights.”
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Cuba’s white sand beaches are world famous. Varadero, 60 miles from Havana, is the holiday hotspot, but Guardalavaca, Playa Pesquero, and the islands of Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Guillermo all offer a fabulous beach break. “The beaches are a top selling point,” said Cosmos senior commercial manager Sara Gelder.
You can’t sell Cuba and not recommend the capital, Havana. Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage site and new Havana is home to Revolution Square, bars, restaurants and the Tropicana Club. Thomson product manager Mexico, Brazil and Caribbean, Zoë Illingworth said: “Havana is oozing with culture, and there are dozens of churches, palaces, castles, monuments and museums to visit.” Thomas Cook can add three nights at the Hotel Presidente for £85 per person.
Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara fought alongside Fidel Castro in the 1950s to rid Cuba of its corrupt government and became the poster-boy for revolution at the same time. There is a bronze statue of Che Guevara in Santa Clara, beneath which his remains were interred.
If clients want all-inclusive, this is the place. They line the beaches, offering free food, drink, water sports and entertainment. Thomson’s Illingworth said: “All-inclusives offer great value for money.” Thomson has seven nights’ all-inclusive at the Playa de Oro in Varadero from £639 per person this winter.
It might be the Caribbean, but it’s very gentle on the pocket. Cosmos has seven nights’ all-inclusive at Playa Caleta in Varadero from £575 in May including flights.
Virgin Airways flies twice a week from Gatwick to Havana, Cubana Airlines flies twice a week from Gatwick to Havana via Holguin, and the big operators have their own charters. Regional clients can fly with Air France via Paris or Iberia via Madrid.
The dollar is no longer accepted in Cuba so visitors should take sterling or euros, which can be exchanged for convertible pesos, which are valued on a par with the dollar. Dollars can be exchanged, but there is a 10% surcharge. Euros are accepted in resorts.
He might have been American, but Cuba loves Ernest Hemingway, who lived on the island from 1939 to 1960. The grounds to his now-dilapidated home in Finca Vigía, where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea are open to visitors. Thomas Cook has a four-day Footsteps of Hemingway tour, priced according to the accommodation in Varadero. Those staying at Sandals Princesa del Mar may be able to take the tour free, others will pay up to £173 per person.
Several operators offer tours with itineraries taking in places such as Havana, the town of Pinar del Rio and the Sierra de los Organos mountains, Santa Clara, to see the Che memorial, and the old colonial town of Trinidad, now a UNESCO site. Cosmos has an eight-day tour from £1,045 per person on a half-board basis.
Clients who can’t be tempted on a tour can still have a break from the beach on day excursions. Virgin Holidays has a day out to Trinidad or Havana, a catamaran cruise around the Caya Blanco and a jungle tour by jet-ski-type craft through the mangrove canals around Varadero for about £22.
Santiago de Cuba, at the south-eastern end of the island, is known as the ‘heroic city’. Visit the mausoleum of José Marti, who led the nationalist cause in the 19th century, the museum of Antonio Maceo, who pushed out the Spanish in 1898 with a little help from the Americans, and the Town Hall balcony from which Castro declared the revolution a success in 1959.
Operators are split over whether it’s best to hire a car or not. The local driving style is fairly exotic, but Regent Holidays says a self-drive is a great way to see the island. There are some modern cars so you don’t have to chug around in a 1950s Chevy, and Regent will tailor-make a tour. Drivers must be over 21.
All visitors to Cuba must have a tourist card. It costs £15 per person and can be bought at the consulate, although most operators will provide it, either in advance or at the airport before departure.
Cuba is the place for cigars. Marvel at the speed of cigar rollers in the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partágas, in Havana, the oldest cigar factory in Cuba, founded in 1845.
When in Havana, do as Ernest Hemingway did and have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, a daiquiri at El Floridita, and round off the evening in Tropicana, Cuba’s best-loved cabaret. Thomas Cook offers a night in the city, with an evening at the Tropicana, for about £164 per person.
The Spanish took over Cuba in 1512, lost it to the British in 1762, and got it back in return for Florida in 1763. They stayed until 1898, leaving their colonial buildings and language. So a few minutes learning a few por favors will not go amiss.
Cuba is warm year-round, with temperatures from around 23C in January to 36C in July. Expect rain from May to October and hurricanes often hit between September and November. “The UK market wants to travel in summer because it is more affordable,” said Cosmos’ Gelder.
Hotels serve international food, but get out and try some local grub. Expect lots of black beans, plantain, pork and chicken.
Thomas Cook’s Hopkins said: “The beaches and all-inclusives, combined with Havana’s 1950s atmosphere, provide an unrivalled holiday destination. Much of this may change when Fidel Castro dies – he will be 80 this year – so we recommend that people experience the country soon.”
Cruise clients can get a good dose of Cuba on Fred Olsen’s Braemar, which calls at Santiago de Cuba, Coco Cay and Havana, where it stays in port for two nights, on a cruise departing on October 26. Prices start from £1,587 per person including flights and transfers.
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