“‘I luuuuurve the dancing dogs!’ squealed our waitress María, clapping her hands as I stared at her in disbelief,” says Hazel Plush in The Daily Telegraph. “‘And those men in suits, the judges – they are so serious… so British!…’ I’d had high expectations for enlightening conversations with the locals in Cuba – about Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, maybe even the country’s relations with the US – but I didn’t envisage a discussion about the merits of Britain’s Got Talent.”
It was dinner time onboard Celestyal Crystal (from €695), and with each platter of Cuban ropa vieja (slow-cooked beef), sweetcorn fritters and braised beans, María would bring another anecdote to the table.
Cuba has changed a lot since the country’s president Raúl Castro and Barack Obama took the first steps towards reconciliation in 2015. The island became “travel’s hottest ticket”, and, if you want to see more of the island in comfort, “cruising is your best option”, says Plush.
A seven-day itinerary aboard the Celestyal Crystal includes two full days at sea, but in that time you can learn about cigars, cook syrupy buñuelos (doughnuts) and try Caribbean dances taught by quick-footed Cubans. The ship circumnavigates the island and stops off at Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Jamaica’s Montego Bay and Havana.
The first luxury hotel in Havana
While in Havana, stop off at the glamorous terrace on top of the city’s first truly five-star hotel – it “has fast become the glitziest location to view the city’s beautiful, but faded, colonial buildings”, says Rishma Dosani in the Daily Star. Lounging on one of the daybeds at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana (from $333 – pictured below), “a simple glass balustrade is all that separates me from the giant pillars of Gran Teatro de la Habana”, home to the Cuban National Ballet.
Also, “if I sit up, I can see the Capitolio Nacional, Havana’s answer to the White House, as well as Central Park”. On the streets, well-preserved Corvettes and Buicks, exported from the US in the 1950s, are proudly paraded by their owners. The hotel also has a cigar room, complete with tobacco sommelier, as well as a lounge bar “boasting the city’s largest variety of rum”.
One of the highlights of the city is the open courtyard of Palacio de la Artesanía, a shopping centre housed in a former 18th-century colonial palace and famous for its rum-tasting and cigar-rolling sessions. Here connoisseurs pour “generous measures” of their authentic Havana Club rums while explaining the history of one of their biggest exports. Should you get a taste for the delicious drinks, “head to the world famous El Floridita”. Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, the seafood restaurant, with its bright red bar, is the birthplace of the daiquiri. Novelist Ernest Hemingway was a huge fan.
Explore your adventurous side
Viñales is a different prospect, says Joey Tyson in Travel Weekly. The Viñales Valley, Cuba’s Unesco World Heritage national park, “is said to produce some of the best tobacco in Cuba and, by default, the world”. However, “incredible cigars are not the only reason people visit Viñales”. Indeed, “strewn with enormous mogotes, the limestone hills that give the valley its distinctive appearance, it’s a hub for hikers, climbers and other active travellers”. It is just a four-hour drive west of Havana and is easily combined with a trip to the beach resort Varadero.
To make the most of your stay, “horse trekking is the best option”. In between stops at tobacco farms, coffee estates and swimming holes, travellers see the valley up close. A three-hour trek to the Las Aquaticos viewpoint to see the sunrise will “more than justify the early start”. Other activities include cycling, ideal as a result of scarce traffic and mostly flat routes, as well as cave excursions, and rock climbing.
Around 20 years ago the Castro regime began to allow Cubans to run casa particulares (guest houses) from their homes. “These bed-and-breakfast-style properties are among the island’s most interesting options” and you’ll find many in Viñales town, a “charming little settlement of colourful houses”.