- Destination: Cuba ( Varadero & Havana)
- Date: March 2015
- Flight Time: 10hours 5 minutes with Virgin Atlantic Airways
- Duration: one week
- Language: Spanish
- Currency: Two! For Tourists: Cuban Convertible pesos – know as CUC ( Pronounced Cook) For Locals: Cuban Pesos ( CUP) You can only convert money once you arrive in Cuba.
- Departing: London Gatwick
- Weather: Warm / Hot – All year round. Rained in Havana a couple of times but cleared up straight away.
- Visa Needed: Yes – If you book a package they’ll supply you with one, if you booked separates, you can purchase one from: www.cubavisas.com
Time to jet off once again, as I live North of the river, Heathrow is normally my preferential departure airport, however we don’t always have that choice! Cue the Gatwick Express leaving from London Victoria Station. ( and the lovely cab man from Addison Lee )
The Gatwick Express does some great deals if you are a group of three, four or more. Grab these online before you leave (www.gatwickexpress.com). Though remember you must be travelling together and at times, the barriers don’t always work with group tickets, you’ll have to see the lady/ man at the gate ( Same as if you print your tickets as opposed to getting them delivered before hand) Great thing about the express is, it departs every fifteen minutes and only takes 30 minutes ( compared to the 1.5 hour drive and no traffic!) – My only suggestion to the express? Please put ramps so I can just wheel my suitcase on! 🙂
Security & Passport Control went hitch free and we managed to grab breakfast and all important trip to Boots to pick up any medications ( and most importantly sweets) we may need. We made our way to the gate and its the first time I’ve gone through the gate and told to get straight on the plane…I’m used to more waiting! ( TIP: Bring everything you need from home – I.e medication / snacks etc – Cuba doesn’t get any imported goods so there’ll be no running to the hotel shop to stock up.)
Once onboard, thankfully we purchased some extra leg room seats which Virgin’s planes now have more of ( you’ll remember before these were only available in the form of Exit Seats) It made travelling that more comfortable.
After take – off, Lunch was soon served, looked much more appealing than my previous trips. I went for Beef which was awful, perhaps it was the Mustard Mash, I was excited by the Gu Pudding – but dark chocolate orange – why dark?! Lol. I’ll take a rain check next time.
Virgin’s entertainment system, VERA, has more than enough to keep you entertained, I managed to watch all the Oscar nominated films on my watching list. TIP: Use Virgin’s headphones for VERA. They aren’t amazing quality but annoyingly the headphones plug into the seat arm ( as opposed to next to the screen) which means its very easy to break your jack connection ( trust me I’ve done it twice).
After 10 hours – I was glad to get off the plane, gutted there was no wi – fi on board – This was to be a recurring theme throughout the holiday!
Once at Havana Airport, It was incredibly busy and chaotic but vibrant! We met the lovely Sonia from Captivating Cuba who whisked us away to our private transfer. The queue at the airport for the currency was very long so we opted to wait until we got to the hotel.
Transfer Time to Varadero: Two hours and fifteen minutes ! Not ideally what you want after such a long flight but they do make a comfort break stop half way. If you were on a shared transfer stopping at all the hotels, this would be much longer. Varadero is the man made beach location where most hotels are located on this side of the island in a long line, it takes almost 20 minutes to drive past all of them…
Our Hotel: Melia Paradisus Varadero ( All Inclusive)
We were greeted by non enthusiastic, unwelcoming reception staff which was disappointing, as reception is the first impression of a hotel…
Thankfully our room was ready, so we were whisked off on a golf buggy with our bags offering fruitella to all the staff! You’d be surprised how well they went down… Better than pesos! TIP: Wages are minimal in Cuba, keep 1 – 5CUC notes or Coins handy to give out as thank you tips.
Once at the room ( Block 18) , it was pleasant but sadly no sea view, also disappointingly the third bed wasn’t ready and there was one less towel etc. The guys kindly sorted the bed whilst we went to get go and get something to eat. My only real gripe with the room? No bathroom door!
Melia’s grounds were absolutely beautiful – with an amazing pool ( with some very deep parts!) Swim up bar, a beach complete with bar and water sports, Fab Anamacion Team and a stunning lobby / reception area with a bar. Absolutely every groundskeeper, maid, serving staff were an absolute credit to this establishment. The hotel had the main buffet restaurant and also several different restaurants you could book ( Try and book these as far in advance as possible – they are definitely worth the visit)
We probably ate in Ara the main buffet restaurant the most, my observations were: Large selection but nothing was labelled. Main gripe: The cheese area! ( Not refrigerated and quickly became the wasps nest to avoid when walking past), my first plate was always the experimental plate, the second one was what I liked. The food lacked flavour terribly ( especially for what is regarded as a Caribbean island to some extent) most explained to be it was because the lack of variety of spices available. Fish man was my favourite – he grilled my Tilapia to perfection and greeted us every day even when we abandoned him for Meat man. Service staff were fab – I was taken aback how many languages they spoke, Aileen, Glenda & Yeny picked up on my small level of Spanish and taught me a few words!
In contrast: We visited both Romantica & Sakura Japanese restaurant. The food here was excellent! Much better which leads me to believe Bland doesn’t need to be an option! – Definitely recommend.
We had some great Water Aerobics sessions with Abel & Yuse – Absolutely hilarious & entertaining – I’ve never laughed so much Yuse went even further by bringing me fried plantains ( Platanos Maduros) which i was craving – I was very grateful!
It’s these acts of kindness that makes you want to return.
Kristal Bar next to the reception was probably where we visited for drinks the most – Strawberry Daquiri, a Champagne Cocktail and a Pina Colada were amongst my regulars. Don’t be alarmed by the fact they’ll ask you event at 9am if you’d like yours with Ron ( the word for Rum!)
Entertainment: Although a lovely setting for entertainment, I did find the music, very english – centric and very dreary on nights! Especially on Friday and Saturday nights.There were some stunning young beautiful violinist which blew me away, but I really wanted some cuban music, salsa lessons, merengue etc, that’s one of the things to easily love about Cuba – It’s beautiful music. I was told Cuban day was on a Thursday. ( and Thursday only!)
Activities: We visited Casa De La Musica which is 5CUC to get in, where all the locals go on a Sunday – almost for a visual karaoke of 80’s specials! ( Managed to get a Convertible Classic taxi back to the hotel)
Varadero Bus Tour: Takes you to a house credited to the late Al Capone ( which is now a restaurant) and DuPont’s Xanadu mansion ( again a restaurant) both with amazing views. We finished the tour in a craft market ( the prices are great here – so I’d advise you get anything gift – like here). Quick visit to a shop that stocks the full selection of Havana Rum and Havana’s best tobacco – The Cigar!
DuPont’s Mansion – complete with Ron & Coke…
Catamaran, Beach & Swimming with Dolphins ( 10 years ago I did this same activity in the same location, but the activity was very different)- as you can imagine i didn’t get many photos – since this involved copious amounts of water, though the photographer caught some ( I’ll add these later) . Once on the boat:
We paused mid – way for some snorkelling:
We then stopped at the beautiful Cayo Blanco. We did manage to do this at the same time as some other friends who weren’t swimming with dolphins. We were on separate catamaran’s but you will meet on this beach and trust me there’s enough personality from the Captain and his multi – lingual team on the boat ( in between the rum punch) and some snorkelling ( obviously before the drinking).On Cayo Blanco you are fed and watered, though watch out for the sea – gulls
then onto the Dolphin park
It was then smooth sailing with a bit of dancing on the way back…
Sunsets: All the hotels are looking in the perfect direction for some gorgeous sunsets – so don’t miss out on one.
Now if you come to Varadero – you don’t get a real feel of Cuba unless you travel down to “Habana” – Cuba’s vibrant capital. We did the two hour journey back down and checked into the Hotel Sevilla.
Now this was more like it – Live Cuban band complete with singer and Cuban dancers – the atmosphere was amazing.
Hotel Sevilla was also an old hotel but the reception staff were much better then Melia but on two occasions the hotels water stopped working – so no water in the bathrooms, toilets etc – which was an inconvenience. The bell boy staff were absolutely 5 star – They were great and I have nothing but praise for them.
Tours / Things to Do: We did a tour in a classic convertible car, seeing all the city has to offer and then stopped at Plaza de la Revolucion. When we got back, we walked down to Obispo, where alot of the food places were and stopped off and ordered some food. For the first time since being on the island – the food was mucchhh better! It was so good to have some sweet potatoes. Once back we jumped in a cab to Hotel Nacional – This stunning place has been open since 1930! And is worth a visit. ( Those technologically advanced – can get wifi to use in the business centre on the 1st floor whilst you’re here also.) You must try the Cuba Libre’s in the gardens at the back.
Once back – we decided to visit some friends of friends who live in Havana – and what a beautiful vibrant place it was. If you are in Havana on a Sunday. Show the taxi guy: Callejon de Hamel ( opposite the art gallery) – You can even ask for Casa del Karina ( tell her I sent you – in Spanish though!) You’ll have an amazing music filled afternoon. 12 – 3pm on Sundays.
In the evening we visited: La Terreza Restaurant – Ensure your hotel staff book you this place in advance. Very unique offering of food.
Make sure you visit: Museo de la Revolucion. This museum is a must – see. It’s 8 CUC entry fee and illustrates the fascinating history of such an amazing island and how they’ve got to where they are today.
Lastly: jump on a horse drawn carriage to take you down some more authentic routes and feel like a local.
There is so much to see, you’ll find yourself taking photos of not only the gorgeous original architecture everywhere you look, but also the stunning cars around the City.
One thing I didn’t get round to doing this time round but I did last time was : A visit to the Cigar & Rum Factories – A must do.
In Conclusion: There is so much to see on this island, I’d recommend time in both Havana and Varadero without a doubt. The one thing I noticed is sometimes the lack of customer service from front of house, where they chat amongst themselves before assisting you, wherever we went, even at restaurants at times. This island is probably about to undergo some change over the next couple of years, so I would urge you to visit before this change takes place. The cuban people are friendly, proud and incredibly educated and a nation respected by all. You’ll have some fantastic debate and learn some interesting things. If you are stuck to technology – be prepared for an unconnected break. Wi – fi is at some hotels but is costly and not great speeds. Also things like Facetime / Snap Chat – won’t work.
Remember to save: 25 CUC for Departure Tax ( TIP: Put in your passport and the beginning of the trip and leave it there)
Until the next trip…. here’s some of the maid’s handy work!