The Daily Telegraph, September 29, 2013
This week's winning tip
Before visiting, read Elmore Leonard’s historical novel Cuba Libre. Set just after the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15 1898, this bloodthirsty story brings the locations, landmarks and history alive. At El Patio in Cathedral Plaza in Havana, go inside and look for a door on the left-hand wall; behind it you will find a gem of an air-conditioned small bar to cool off in. Then sample the food at a table in the main part of the building. Find the Hotel Sevilla ( hotelsevilla-cuba.com ) and take the lift to the top floor. Get a drink from the small bar and take it to see the views from the magnificent dining room overlooking Old Havana. Do not miss the theatrical ceremony of soldiers in 18th-century uniforms, held at 9pm every evening in La Habana fortress on the other side of Havana Harbor.
J M C Watson, from Berkshire, wins a weekend for two in Stockholm
More advice from readers
On your bike
Take as many bars of soap, bottles of shampoo, pencils and paper (not sweets) to give to schools you’ll see along the way – Cuba may be a wonderful island but it still suffers from US embargoes. Eschew the all-inclusive sterility of Varadero and get out into the countryside, swim under waterfalls in Camagüey, visit the old towns in the south of the island, the beaches at the Bay of Pigs and the lush countryside of Granm .
This is best appreciated by bicycle; book with one of the companies offering guided tours. These are of varying degrees of difficulty, around 50 miles a day, transporting you by bus into the countryside in the morning and after the ride, onto the next town. They ship luggage ahead and provide food, drink and directions through the day. You will really hear, see, feel, taste and smell the island.
Colin McCulloch, Edinburgh
Baracoa: a tropical paradise situated on the eastern tip of Cuba. The only way we could get there was by crossing the daunting La Farola, a steep and narrow 80-mile mountain road that climbed to 600m at its peak. The town comprises a colonial cluster of bars, restaurants and casa de particulares offset by the long stretch of clay-coloured coastline and the salty azure seas.
Baracoa is famous in Cuba for its chocolate so make sure you visit the plantation. Hire a rowing boat (rowers come inclusive) that takes you out on the waters so that you can marvel at the beautiful yet imperious El Yunque mountain that dominates the landscape. Make sure you try the cocktails at the friendly La Colina bar, especially the canchánchara, which is exceptional.
Philip Clark, Bucks
Those wishing to experience colonial Spanish Cuba are well advised to avoid overcrowded, tourist trap Trinidad. Head instead for Baracoa, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, and the country’s first capital.
It’s in the far north east of Cuba, 620 miles from Havana. Cobbled streets, single-storey period buildings, funky music and laid-back locals make for a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Glorious isolated beaches are close by virgin rainforest; and overlooking it all is El Yunque, Cuba’s version of Table Mountain.
Baracoa has its own Malecón, an attractive seaside promenade which ends at Baracoa’s statue of Columbus, carved from a giant tree stump.
Best of all is the food, richer and spicier than the rest of Cuba; don’t miss out on cucurucho, an ambrosia of fruit, nuts, coconut and honey served in palm bark.
Gordon Rankin, by email
Visit Bar Monserrate. It’s the place where Ernest Hemingway drowned his sorrows and it serves the best rum cocktails in town.
Isabella Daurer, Vienna
We stayed in Parque Central, combining amazing hospitality and excellent location in old Havana, but watch out for over-friendly locals offering discounted cigars, as you may end up in their front room. Spend a lovely afternoon in Plaza Vieja with a 360-degree vantage point of the city at Cámara Oscura tower and enjoy excellent beer in Taberna de la Muralla. Check out authentic Cuban art at the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, off the Plaza de la Catedral.
Grab some fresh fish at the pierside restaurant Litoral Habanero on the east side of the city. A daiquiri at Hemingway’s bar is a must and is worth the minimal addition to prices at bars elsewhere. You can’t go wrong with a mojito on the Malecón gazing out to sea either. Explore the history of Havana Club rum at El Museo del Ron too.
Lozi Evans, Nottingham
Make sure you have plenty of water for waiting in the queues on arrival and departure at Havana airport, you will be waiting for a long time. At the airport on departure there is a small book store where you will find Cuban novels in English, that are not available in England.
Take clothes you no longer want to leave for hotel staff, they will be so grateful. Try to visit a plantation house, they are generally not tarted up like those on other Caribbean islands, and while tour guides are guarded about this aspect of their history, many building, outbuildings and machinery can still be seen.
Valerie Kamruddin, Essex
Head for the reef
At Playa Ancon you can arrange snorkelling trips out to a nearby reef. Small boats with sails tack out to the reef with six or eight people and anchor for 30 minutes while you explore the reef. All equipment is supplied. The safety brief is “if you see a shark get back to the boat as soon as possible and do not touch the jellyfish”. My own experience was the Great Barrier Reef, but the freedom in Cuba compared to the commercial operation in Australia makes for a much enhanced experience. The operators of the boats were local men who just approached us on the beach and offered us the trip for $10 per person – that was in 2008.
Iain Macgregor, Twickenham
Make it personal
My top holiday tip for Cuba is to pre-book a personal tour of Havana with a local business, rather than to sign up as “one of the crowd” on a tour operator’s offering. We booked an eight-hour “Havana Insider” tour with cubanconnectiontour.com to orientate ourselves on our first day in Cuba, and spent the next couple of days exploring or revisiting places of interest at our leisure. We learnt more in a day than our fellow travellers learnt in a week.
K Bilson, Derbyshire
In the rhythm
During our March winter-escape holiday we found that Cuba means sunshine, enticing blue sea, bright colours, tantalising aromas, spicy food and rum with everything, although our guide told us that locals prefer beer. Cuba means an irresistible rhythm of music, not just for tourists. Tobacco and sugarcane are also an integral part of Cuba’s past and present.
Washed by the Atlantic, warmed by the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba’s coastline is littered with sunken pirate ships of centuries past. The six Unesco World Heritage Sites include the towns of Havana and Trinidad, which reflect their colourful colonial past and are being tastefully restored. A most enjoyable, safe holiday.
Anthony Skipper, Surrey
San Miguel de los Baños – Cuba has no shortage of ruined 20th-century grandeur, but the ruins of the Gran Hotel in this faded spa town certainly stand out. Once compared to the casino at Monte Carlo, the waters of the spa resort were polluted by a nearby sugar mill and it now lies deserted. A worthwhile 15-mile detour from the main highway, south-west of Matanzas; having the site all to yourself, and searching out some of the other grand villas in the town, are your reward for persevering despite the bemused looks you will receive from the locals when you ask for directions.
Ben Spicer, Cambridgeshire
Havana city tour guide Juan Carlos Figueroa offers a remarkably clear view of Havana and Cuba’s past, present and future. Informed, entertaining and refreshingly honest, a morning or an afternoon in his company is a must ( [email protected] ). Son of a chess master, Chinese-Cuban Romey Chuit is well placed to give a unique insight into the authentic Cuba. He knows everybody, everywhere and is the consummate host whether you are four or 64 ( locallysourcedcuba.com ).
Highlights included Baracoa, Camagüey, Trinidad and so much more. Spend a day, eight days or even two weeks touring the island with him. An added bonus is the homestays with Cuban families and interaction with the locals.
Edwin Lampert, by email
The view from Hotel Sevilla (see winning tip)
Roof with a view
The NH Parque Central is a very good top-end hotel with big, comfortable rooms. The rooftop bar, grill and pool has views of Havana. The Hotel Inglaterra is just across the square from the Parque Central. Here the veranda is a pleasant place to spend a warm evening, sipping mojitos, listening to the ever-present live music, and watching the old American cars rattling past.
La Guarida restaurant is worth a visit. The building appears derelict, but after climbing several flights of stairs you arrive at what appears to be someone’s front door. Inside the food and atmosphere are of the highest quality. It’s advisable to book.
Mike Holloway, Northants
Anyone visiting Varadero should make time for a meal at Duponts . History just drips off the walls of this one-time home of a very wealthy family. From the old-fashioned elevator with the sliding metal doors to the beautiful panelling and carved pillars, the restaurant encompasses the luxury of another era. Eat in the restaurant then go up to the top floor and enjoy a drink in the atmospheric bar overlooking the seas. By Cuban standards, it might be quite a bit more expensive but it is well worth it.
Ann Boulton, Lincolnshire
Split your time
When travelling to Cuba it might be a good idea to divide your trip into two parts. Spend part of your stay in Havana and the other part at a beach resort.
In Havana see the sights, the picturesque Old Town with its Old Square and maybe a couple of museums. A Hemingway theme is a good idea: you might like to visit Ernest’s watering holes, such as La Bodequita del Medio , and enjoy Hemingway-style mojitos. Visiting Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s villa, is a must.
Leaving behind the town head to Varadero (or another resort), with its clear waters, shining sands and swaying palm trees. An ideal place for diving, waterskiing or just lazing in the sun.
Helena Kuusama, Helsinki
The railways of Cuba date back to 1837 – indeed earlier than in Spain. They played a critical part in the revolution as the memorial to the Che Guevara train derailment at Santa Clara reminds us. Steam train rides are now mostly confined to tourist lines based on sugar factory routes: the Marcelo Salgado line at Remedios and the line from Trinidad to Izuacu are examples. There is an eclectic collection of restored engines.
Travelling by train is a challenge as the current equipment varies from trains from the US (via Canada), old Trans-European Express vehicles, and other material from China, Iran, Argentina and Japan. As ever in Cuba, times are changing fast and recently 300 new trains were ordered from China so go there quickly, but don’t expect to arrive on time if you take the train!
Theo Steel, Essex
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