No surprise Cuba is number 2 on the NY Times list of 52 places to visit in 2015. Just 90 miles from the US and a 45-minute flight away, Cuba doesn’t feel like any other Caribbean island. It boasts a fascinating history, rich culture, striking architecture and remarkable art. In it’s heyday in the 1950’s, glamorous Havana was ‘ the place to go.’
I just returned and saw Americans everywhere. Hoteliers are scouting locations, new restaurants are popping up weekly, golf courses are being built and Mariel port has been revamped with added berths for luxury yachts as people prepare for the ‘opening.’ No one knows how long Cuba with retain its unique charm which makes this year an ideal time
The good news is that now you can create custom itineraries. As of January 15, agents can book travel directly to Cuba as long as clients fall under one of 12 designated categories. These include professional research and meetings, educational activities, public performances, workshops, competitions, exhibitions, support for the Cuban people, humanitarian projects and activities of private foundations, among others. It’s actually easy to get anyone who wants to travel to Cuba to fit in these categories, no matter what their interests are.
This broad spectrum makes it possible to provide your high - end clients with itineraries tailored to their specific interests. Bespoke culinary, art and cultural options are now possible, as long as they fall under the ‘people to people’ banner known as ‘cultural exchange.’ This means that travelers interact with the sweet, friendly locals - be they dancers, musicians, waiters, chefs, restaurateurs, book sellers, artists, gallery owners, taxi drivers or cigar makers. For many, meeting the open, interesting Cuban people was the highlight of their trip. While strictly beach holidays are still prohibited, Americans traveling on the island will find many beautiful beaches and resorts on both the Atlantic and Caribbean to enjoy between
It’s key to work closely with a company experienced in the region. My visit was put together by International Expeditions. They have been arranging trips in Cuba for quite a while and work with agents to create personalized itineraries. (They can also coordinate the charter flights to Havana which now depart from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and JFK ) www.ietravel.com
That said, there are few upscale hotel options in Havana. The Saratoga, where Jay-Z and Beyonce celebrated their 5th anniversary, is the best. Ideally located in Old Havana, this 5-star luxury boutique hotel with neoclassical facade, floor to ceiling French windows, and generous marble bathrooms offers beautifully decorated suites adorned with Cuban art. Its glamorous rooftop terrace has a swimming pool, bar and panoramic Havana vistas. Notably, this is the only hotel where wifi is included in the price. www.hotelsaratoga.com
Other options, although not as luxurious, include the contemporary Hotel Nh Parque Central, situated in the center of town, with rooftop pool and attractive amenities. www.iberostar.com/en/hotels/la-habana/iberostar-parque-central
The modern but generic waterfront Meliá Cohíba offers sea views, a pool and a spectacular Cuban entertainment extravaganza at their Habana Café. Both hotels have wifi for purchase. Additionally, phone calls can be made from your hotel to the US (cell phones will not work for calls). www.meliacuba.com/cubahotels/hotel-melia-cohiba
DINING and SIGHTSEEING
Cuba’s latest culinary stars are the privately-run restaurants called paladars, many of them in lovely restored homes. It’s important to choose the best as dining experiences vary greatly. These should all be prearranged as part of the itinerary as there are still no US credit cards or ATM cards accepted, and the better ones are usually booked. (You can change dollars for the local currency, CUCs, at your hotel.) I highly recommend the renowned La Guarida, as well as Los Mercaderes, Vista del Mar and El Cocinero for both great ambiance and food. Clients should be aware that many of the paladars are located up 2 or 3 flights of stairs.
I took in Havana’s wondrous sights with my superb guide, Ramiro Liben, who would be perfect for your discerning client. By day we toured the historic squares and winding streets of old Havana, leafy Plaza de Armas with its book market, viewed the once glorious Spanish colonial architecture, some restored, some in a state of decay, took a salsa lesson, met local artists, visited the excellent Habana Compas Dance Company and rode a cherry red 1957 Chevy convertible (taxi) to the legendary Nacional Hotel for a mojito at the bar.
Then onto Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls in room 511, where I gazed at his very typewriter. Close-by, you’ll find the famed Floridita Bar where the lime daiquiri was created, the novelist’s favorite Cuban haunt, his photographs adorning the walls. I downed the tasty concoction, the best in town, as the band, Los Hombres, sang ‘Besa me mucho.’ Nights in Havana are sexy; visitors and locals stroll the seafront boulevard, the Malecon. Here and in clubs, lovers dance to the sound of the Buena Vista Social Club and ‘Guantanamera’ or kick up their heels as they rumba, salsa and cha cha. Havana is like a jewel box with precious gems nestled in every corner.
Excursions can include visits to Hemingway’s country home - Finca Viglia, Vinale’s breathtaking landscape, the special, creative people of Matanzas, the mega resort Varadero (Cuba’s Cancun), the preserved colonial town of Trinidad, and beyond. In addition to cigar tours for enthusiasts of Cuba’s prized product, the annual February Cigar Festival attracts aficionados from around the globe. For art lovers, the 12th Havana Art Biennial takes place May 21-May 28, 2015. For clients who are private art collectors interested in connecting with prominent artists and museum curators, contact Cuban born Alberto Magnan at his NYC gallery: www.magnanmetz.com
There is always something exciting happening in Cuba.