Cuba Libre for Havana’s 500th birthday in 2019.

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by Isabel Conway –

I am sitting in an early 1950s throw- back to US capitalist power when Pontiacs like this one, owned by rich pleasure seeking Americans, purred through the streets of Havana, with one of Cuba’s new breed of tourism entrepreneurs.

Maykel Rodriquez, joint owner of HST –Havana Super Tour – is embracing the still limited opportunities for private enterprise. Like many more he was hoping for a tourism bonanza after former President Obama extended a welcome hand of friendship offering an ease on travel restrictions. US airlines were given approval to start flying to Havana, and the island’s future looked rosy until the election of President Trump. Since then many of Cuba’s ambitions have been on hold.

GET TO HAVANA FOR TH 500TH ANNIVERSARY

Tourism from Europe to the largest island of the Caribbean continues to grow, bolstered by continuing improvements in necessary tourism infrastructure with plenty of joint venture upmarket hotel chain developments. Havana celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2019 and festivities will go in the capital all year.

Right now Mexico, Canada, Germany, France and the UK provide the bulk of tourists who arrive in their droves to relax on paradise beaches of pure white sands with crystal clear waters and explore interesting colonial era cities and towns.

Numbers from Ireland continue to increase mainly through attractive packages on offer and word of mouth that here is a unique holiday destination whose friendly people, fabulous climate and low prices are a huge draw.

Mykail confirms that his privately run business is a still a rarity in Cuba. They offer small group tours, mainly in Havana, but also into the countryside, from history and heritage to the legacy of Cubans cigars and rum, haunts frequented by Ernest Hemingway and the notorious legacy of the Mafia who once held sway.

Hemingway had a home in Cuba for many years and some of Havana’s most visited bars are those associated with his name including La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita where customers sip his favourite Daiquiri cocktail sitting beside a realistic bronze sculpture of El ‘Papa’ Hemingway at the counter.

Classic American cars like the stately Pontiac that took me on a tour of Havana’s former links with gambling and the mafia are an important tourist attraction and good source of income for their owners. They ooze the glamor of a bygone age whilst taking visitors through Havana’s character packed squares and whilst cruising the long Malecon seafront promenade facing the straits of Miami.

Away from Havana’s art and crafts markets, interesting museums and lively bars and cafes the island has much to offer from unspoilt countryside and mountains to hundreds of gorgeous bays and beaches.

GLORIOUS BEACHES, FRIENDLY LOCALS

Exploring the provinces locals, by nature incredibly warm and friendly, are quite likely to invite you into their homes. Wandering the back streets of beautiful Sagua La Grande in west central Cuba a lively street Feria (festival) was in full swing. Stopping to take a photo of an elegant doorway the lady of the house and her teenage daughter invited me inside to sample coffee, cake and a snifter of rum.

Our base for five nights was on Cayo Santa Maria, island keys connected to the mainland by a 48 km long causeway road, a four- hour journey from Havana. The key has 17 hotels, all with their own beaches including several luxury Melia and Iberostar properties which we visited. Recently built 4 star Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria where we stayed was less luxurious than some of its neighbours, popular with holidaymakers desiring an affordable chill out and the promise of day long free cocktails served to their beachside beach loungers.

LEGACY OF CHE GUEVARA

We stopped off at Santa Clara on the way where the last battle of the guerrilla war led by Che Guevara (his mother Ana Isabel Lynch was the daughter of immigrants from Co Galway who left Ireland for Argentina during the famine) was waged, marking the end of Batista’s dictatorship.

Known as “the city of the heroic guerrilla” the town is a place of pilgrimage for Cubans. They come to revere the soaring bronze statue of the Argentinian born revolutionary. A museum monument of the de-railed train including original wagons and the D 6 caterpillar bulldozer used by the guerrillas to immobilize and force the surrender of Batista’s reinforcements in December 1958 is nearby.

CUBA LIVES UP TO ALL THE HYPE

There is nowhere in the world quite like Cuba, the guide books tell us. …..the pulsating music, heady mojitos, the bright colours and revolutionary murals, the crumbling buildings of old Havana, friendly smiling people, cheap and cheerful art. Nowhere quite lives up to all the hype as much as Cuba does.

Getting there: Isabel flew to Havana with Air France (www.airfrance.ie) on the latest generation Dreamliner aircraft in their new spacious Premium Economy cabin; Daily flights to Havana from Paris CDG and from London Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic from £427 return twice weekly. Isabel visited Cuba as part of the FIT Cuba Tourism fair, invited by the Cuba Tourist Board on behalf of MINTUR. Visit www.travel2cuba.co.uk and www.cubatravel.cu.

CLIMATE AND MONEY

Best time to visit between November and May; Bring Euros or Sterling, not US dollars (locals are charged a commission to change them) WIFI is sketchy outside of international hotels who sell internet phone cards.

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