Cuba travel guide

A blue classic car parked outside a house in Trinidad, Cuba

Travelling around Cuba can feel like you’ve stepped back in time – the iconic classic cars from the 1950s are everywhere, the architecture is from a bygone era and it’s perfectly normal to see a horse and cart in the street or a man using oxen to plough his field.

The Caribbean island, famous for its rum, salsa music and cigars, is a fascinating country boasting attractive scenery and great food and drink, and is home to a warm, hospitable people. I spent a little over a week travelling around the western and central parts of the island, and loved every minute of it. So without further ado, here’s my mini-travel guide to Cuba…

Havana

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

The Cuban capital is a must for anyone visiting the country and the old, historic centre is easily explored on foot. Browse the second-hand books and posters for sale in the market in the Plaza des Armes (above), stop for a drink in Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar La Bodeguita del Medio or step inside the beautiful Catedral de San Cristobal.

Memorial to Jose Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana

The Plaza de la Revolución is a fascinating tribute to the revolution and the men who inspired it, with an incredibly tall monument dedicated to José Martí, a national hero in Cuba, at its centre (above). Before I went to Cuba, I was told if I did one thing in Havana, I should go to the Hotel Nacional and enjoy a cocktail on the veranda – I did and it was wonderful.

Pinar del Río

Shelves full of bottles of guayabita flavoured rum liqueur for sale in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Situated on the western tip of the island, Pinar del Río is best known for its cigars and rum. During my brief trip to the city, I visited Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién, a small cigar factory where I learned about cigar-making while watching the staff hand-rolling and cutting cigars, as well as a rum factory. Pinar del Río produces its own particular type of rum liqueur, guayabita (above), made from little guava fruits and is a must-try if you’re in the area.

Viñales

The countryside around Vinales in Cuba

The beautiful Viñales Valley (above) boasts superb scenery thanks to the unusual and distinctive mogotes (the limestone rocks covered in lush green vegetation) that dot the landscape. There isn’t much to do in the town itself, but the countryside is well worth exploring. I had a wonderful time in Viñales walking through the countryside and meeting some of the local fruit and tobacco farmers.

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

The southern coastal city of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its perfectly-preserved historic centre. Parque Marti in the middle of the city is surrounded by beautiful, historic buildings, including the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción and the Teatro Tomás Terry, which is well worth a look inside. With its enchanting bay-side location and historic centre, the city has been nicknamed the Pearl of the South.

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

Walking around the centre of Trinidad can feel like you’re in another era thanks to its cobbled streets and colourful colonial-era buildings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was my favourite place in Cuba. There’s a laid-back charm to the city and I happily spent a couple of days mooching around, popping into its shops, restaurants, museums and churches, browsing the handicrafts market, and soaking up its rich heritage and culture.

The view over Trinidad and the surrounding countryside from the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

If you like cocktails, make sure to visit Canchánchara, a small bar in the city that’s famed for its namesake cocktail – a delicious concoction of honey, rum, lime and water. And don’t miss the nightly Casa de la Musica on the stone steps beside the Plaza Mayor (above) where Trinidadians come to dance, listen to music and sip mojitos.

Santa Clara

Memorial to Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba

If you’re looking to delve into Cuba’s revolutionary past, then head to Santa Clara. For the city was the site of the last, decisive battle in the revolutionary war of the 1950s. The Tren Blindado Monument recreates the train derailment, orchestrated by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, that prevented the then-dictator Batista from moving his soldiers and weapons to the east of the country.

The city is also where Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is buried and his burial site is surrounded by a jaw-droppingly enormous memorial, the Conjunto Escultorico Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara (above), that has to be seen to be believed. The site also includes a small museum dedicated to the guerilla leader.

Food and drink

Cuba tends to have a bad (and unfair) reputation for its food. There’s a lot of pork, rice and beans on menus, but I feasted most nights on delicious platters of seafood. My favourite meal was lobster and shrimp with plantain chips and salad (which I ate a lot), but I also enjoyed a great paella, red snapper and a scrumptious tuna sandwich, which to my surprise consisted of a flavourful marinated tuna-steak and salad in a roll.

A cup of canchanchara at the Canchanchara bar in Trinidad, Cuba

The island is famous for its rum and the spirit beloved by sailors can be found everywhere – bottles of the ubiquitous Havana Club rum are incredibly cheap. Rum is most often drunk in cocktails – you’ll find piña coladas, daiquiris, cuba libres and mojitos on most drinks menus. But you’ll also find the odd local speciality, such as Trinidad’s Canchánchara cocktail (above), and Pinar del Río’s guayabita rum liqueur, too.

Where to stay

To experience some Cuban hospitality, it’s worth staying in a casa particular, a private home that rents out rooms or apartments to paying travellers for the night. It’s a handy way for Cubans to earn a little extra money. I stayed in two casa particulares when I was in Cuba – one in Viñales, the other in Trinidad – and in both cases, my hosts were warm and friendly, and the accommodation excellent. They also served superb breakfasts in the morning.

Currency

If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, it’s worth noting that you can’t buy Cuban money outside the country. And confusingly for first time visitors, the country has two currencies – the Cuban Peso, which is mostly used by Cubans, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (known as CUCs), which is mostly used by visitors.

You can buy your CUCs from a kiosk at Havana Airport, as well as at banks and cadecas throughout the country. British Pound Sterling and Euros are accepted. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the country charges travellers a departure tax – so you’ll need to keep 25 CUCs aside to leave the country.

Have your say

Have you been to Cuba? If so, please feel free to share your travel tips in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the island, too.

Advertisements

Ho Chi Minh City – Part 2

IMG_7700 (2)

Just before lunch we headed to the Reunification Palace in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Home to the president of South Vietnam in 1975 when the North’s tanks came rolling in, it’s stood in a virtual time warp ever since. To get to the palace, we walked through the large pale grey gates surrounding it and past an immaculate round lawn where we headed up a flight of steps to the main entrance.

IMAG1840 (2)

Inside, the palace is home to ceremonial spaces, a banqueting hall, meeting rooms, seating areas, a dining room, screening room and even an indoor rockery. And as befitting a presidential palace, it’s lavishly decorated in parts. The enormous Conference Hall (above), for example, is filled with chintzy red sofas and armchairs with a red patterned carpet. While the Ambassador’s Chamber is a large gold-themed room featuring Japanese-style laquered furnishings.

IMAG1850 (2)

While the entire palace is an ode to the 1970s, when I walked inside the National Security Council Chamber (above), I really felt as though I was stepping back in time. The room has maps all over the walls, basic furniture and an amazing series of pastel coloured phones in a row on a wooden cupboard.

IMAG1887 (2)

Downstairs in the basement is the war bunker, a claustrophobic space full of sparsely-furnished rooms. One of the rooms was empty bar a table, chair, filing cabinet and a series of phones; another just had a bed, a small table and a couple of phones. The Reunification Palace is perfectly preserved and there’s lots to see. I really felt as though I’d been transported back to the 1970s as I walked around and it offers an intriguing insight into what life was like at the palace at the time.

Having spent the morning sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day ambling around the city centre, taking a walking tour of the main sights, such as the elegant Municipal Theatre and the People’s Committee Building, and doing a spot of shopping.

IMAG1965 (2)

Ho Chi Minh City is great for shopping and it’s worth spending a little time exploring the shops around Union Square (above). Le Loi is home to some great boutiques, including my favourite, the Saigon Boutique, where I felt as though I bought half the shop. If you collect art, Union Square has some great galleries – I bought a striking painting in one of them. The central market, meanwhile, is packed with stalls selling all manner of goods, such as fruit and veg, coffee (including the infamous weasel coffee), souvenirs and clothing, while the Vincom Shopping Centre is a modern mall filled with big name high street stores.

In the evening, we headed back to Union Square to check out the People’s Committee Building. We’d read in a guidebook that the exterior is filled with geckos at dusk and we were keen to see if this was true. It turned out it was – there were loads of geckos all over the facade. The soldiers guarding the building, though, were less than impressed by our game of ‘spot the gecko’ and we were soon shooed away and told off for getting too close to the building, which isn’t open to the public.

IMAG1967 (2)

Just before dinner we made our way to the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city. The Skydeck has incredible views in every direction over the city and we stayed there as the sun went down, before stopping off at the bar for a couple of ice-cold margaritas with a view. The perfect way to end a jam-packed day of sightseeing and shopping.

Japan – food

A box of sushi in Sendai

One of my favourite parts about travelling is the food. I love trying new foods and seeking out regional specialities – and my trips to Japan have been no exception.

The first time I went to Japan 10 years ago, my friend and I decided in our wisdom to eat nothing but Japanese food, morning, noon and night. I lasted three days. On the fourth day, we visited Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market at the break of dawn where I was given raw tuna and crab to try, and then I cracked. I was desperately craving western foods and ended up demolishing an entire tub of Pringles-like crisps for lunch and a bowl of cereal for dinner.

For my second visit, I decided to be much more sensible, opting for a mostly western breakfast and then Japanese lunch and dinner, with the occasional sandwich thrown in. As much as I’d like to eat nothing but local food on my travels, I find my body sometimes struggles to adjust to the new foods. This plan proved far more successful and I ended up enjoying a much broader range of foods, too.

A plate of takoyaki at Osaka Castle

One of my favourite Japanese discoveries is takoyaki (above). When I mentioned to my brother-in-law’s sister-in-law that we were going to Osaka, she squealed in delight and insisted I had to try takoyaki while I was there. I therefore made it my mission to track it down.

Takoyaki are balls of batter stuffed with octopus and topped with mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce. I found some for sale in the grounds of Osaka Castle, and while I was a little unsure of it (I’m not the biggest fan of octopus), it turned out to be really tasty and I was glad I’d sought it out.

Another food I really enjoyed was chocolate and melon bread. They’re small sweet rolls with a swirled chocolate and pale green melon design. I found them in a cafe called Afternoon Tea in the shopping centre attached to Sendai’s main railway station where we had breakfast each morning in Sendai. It was so good I had it every day (along with another bread or pastry offering, such as red bean paste buns) and I wish we could get it in the UK!

Other firm Japanese foodie favourites from my travels were green tea ice cream, which I had on both trips to Kyoto, and is simply delightful, and cassis and orange juice, which I first tried in Sendai. Although it sounds a bit of an odd combination, the two work really well together and it ended up becoming my cocktail of choice in Japan.

An ice cream stand selling whitebait, jellyfish, green soybean and grating apple sherbet ice cream at Zuigan-ji Temple in Matsushima

Japan is home to some weird and wonderful foods, and I particularly enjoyed discovering some of the more unusual foods the country had to offer. In Matsushima, for example, we found a stall selling a huge variety of ice cream flavours (above) – some everyday, others decidedly less familiar. I wasn’t brave enough to order the jellyfish or whitebait ice cream (although I was intrigued), instead opting to try the wasabi ice cream, which really tasted of wasabi and was unlike any ice cream I’ve ever had.

A reconstituted fish lollypop in Matsushima

I also tried what I thought was a grilled squid lollypop (above) from a street food vendor where all the young Japanese were queuing up. But on eating it, I think it was reconstituted white fish… But that’s part of the fun of trying different foods when you’re abroad, following the locals’ lead come what may and enjoying (or in some cases immensely disliking) the new experience.

The Ginstitute

Portobello Road Gin

Gin has never been my tipple of choice, I’m more of a rum and tequila girl, but when one of my friends asked if I fancied spending an afternoon making my own gin, I jumped at the chance.

The Ginstitute experience at The Portobello Star in London’s Notting Hill is essentially a three-hour masterclass in gin – an hour-long history of the spirit, followed by a gin making tutorial.

While the history of gin was fascinating (I had no idea there was so much drama attached to it), it was the gin making that I really enjoyed. During our tutorial, we sampled and learned all about the different botanicals that can be used in gins and that when combined, give each gin its own distinct flavour. Botanicals included citruses such as lemon peel, smokier flavours such as celery salt, spices such as cinnamon, florals such as rose and then random stuff like asparagus.

To make your own gin, you start off with a base of Portobello Road’s signature gin, then choose your preferred botanicals to add to it – the idea is to choose a mix (no more than seven) from across the spectrum, making sure to include one from each of the four groups eg one floral, one citrus, etc. The gin instructor then takes your choices and adds a bit of each one to create your own unique gin.

What surprised me most was how different everybody’s custom-made gin tasted. There were seven of us in our group and each gin was markedly different. My gin, according to my far more knowledgeable friend, apparently tastes quite similar to Hendrick’s.

Throughout the experience, we were furnished with a constant, flowing and very welcome supply of gin with a gin and tonic on arrival, followed by a Tom Collins (delicious; gin, lemon, sugar and soda water), followed by another gin and tonic, then another Tom Collins, and at the end, a gin martini…

We left The Ginstitute very happy (having stayed on afterwards for more gin cocktails in The Portobello Star) armed with two bottles of gin and some tonic. What’s more, The Ginstitute keeps a record of the gin you made, so you can order more bottles in the future.

The whole experience was great fun and one I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re looking for something special and a little bit different to do. I certainly came away with a new found respect and appreciation of gin. Cheers!

Info
The Ginstitute, The Portobello Star, 171 Portobello Road, London W11 2DY
£120 per person (includes five cocktails and two bottles of gin)
theginstitute.com

The Scran & Scallie

My mother is a big Tom Kitchin fan and one of her ambitions is to eat in his restaurant, The Kitchin. Unfortunately it’s booked up months in advance and as our trip to Edinburgh was very last minute, I decided to take my mother to the next best thing, Kitchin and Dominic Jack’s gastropub The Scran & Scallie. Boy, did this turn out to be one of my best calls in Edinburgh. It was fabulous and well worth the visit.

The pub saves a few tables each service for walk-ins and on our Sunday evening in the Scottish capital, we decided to chance our luck. We had to wait around an hour for our table (the pub was packed), but we had a great time sitting at the bar while we waited, sipping cucumber martinis (me, delicious and refreshing) and sauvignon blanc (mum).

It turns out there’s always live music in the bar on a Sunday night and we really enjoyed listening to the Scottish folk songs being played. It created a jolly atmosphere in the pub and was a wonderful accompaniment to our meal.

The food? Delicious. We both chose one of the specials for a starter, mackerel tartare, which was quite simply, superb. I could easily have polished off a second plateful, everything about it was just right – it was light and delicate, yet full of flavour. Just incredible. Monkfish wrapped in pancetta was our choice for mains and that too was very tasty. I then opted for a cheese board, while mum went for the chocolate brownie with stout ice cream, which she loved. My cheese board was very generous with a good variety of flavour-packed cheeses (including a blue, soft and hard cheese) served on a platter alongside accompaniments such as small home made oatcakes and damson jam. Despite being rather full at this point, I demolished the lot. The wines were very good, too.

A shout out to the staff, too, who were friendly and attentive (while not being overbearing). I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for somewhere special to eat in Edinburgh, I will definitely be returning on my next trip to the Scottish capital.

Info
The Scran & Scallie, 1 Comely Bank Road, Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH4 1DT
Open seven days a week
Mains between £9.50-£18.50
scranandscallie.com

 

Havana

Plaza Vieja in Havana

“If you only do one thing when you’re in Havana, make sure you go to the Hotel Nacional and sit on the terrace with a cocktail,” I was told by a friend-of-a-friend at a wedding a few days before I went to Cuba. And it’s how I came to spend my final morning on the island, sipping a pina colada with the girls in the garden of this elegant hotel while looking out at the stunning views over the Bahia de la Habana. It was the perfect end to my trip following my previous day’s sightseeing around the Cuban capital.

Plaza de la Caterdral in Havana

Havana is one cool capital city and the district of Old Havana exudes a faded glamour, part beautifully-preserved colonial buildings, part run-down and frayed. Head off the beaten track and you can soon find yourself in a street with enormous pot holes, the like of which I’ve never seen before, and semi-ruined buildings. But it has its own charm and is a fun place to explore on foot.

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

One of the most interesting parts of the city is the old book market in the Plaza de Armas (above), where you can buy second-hand books (some of which are in English) and posters, including those of Cuban films and propaganda for the communist government. There are also lots of fascinating shops round about selling unique paintings, as well as some of the usual tourist goods such as clothing, toys and musical instruments.

The famous La Bodeguita del Medio, which was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, is filled with photographs of its notable patrons and the walls are covered in graffiti where the bar and restaurant’s visitors have scrawled their signatures. It’s small, cramped and very busy, but I stop off for lunch in the restaurant at the back of the establishment and enjoy a good, hearty meal, along with an obligatory mojito.

Memorial to Jose Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana

In the afternoon, I head to the Memorial José Martí (above), an enormously tall star-shaped tower in the centre of Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución dedicated to the Cuban writer and political activist. The surrounding square also features massive portraits of Che Guevara and fellow guerilla Camilo Cienfuegos on the sides of two buildings. It’s anything but subtle – but a fascinating sight to come across in the middle of a capital city.

An impromptu flamenco show at a restaurant in Old Havana livens up my evening as I enjoy a spectacular dancing show right in front of my table during dinner. It’s a fun way to spend the first half of my night before heading down the street to see the iconic Buena Vista Social Club at the Café Taberna.

Despite the fact that most of the performers seemed to be in their 70s or there abouts, they put on an incredible show singing, playing their instruments and dancing, and the audience was soon up on their feet dancing along. It was an incredible evening and I left the café unable to get Cuba’s unofficial national anthem, Guantanamera, out of my head.

Sancti Spíritus

A blue and green lizard partially camoflaged against a wall in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

The old city of Sancti Spíritus was founded by the conquistador Diego Velázquez in 1514. Originally situated on the Tuinucú river, in 1522 it was re-established on the river Yayabo, where it still stands today.

It’s a pretty, relaxed city and a great place to spend a few hours mooching around, wandering into the little shops and sitting on the terrace of a bar, sipping cocktails and watching the world go by.

A bright blue church in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

A mobile fruit stand on a road side in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

How to… make the perfect mojito

IMAG1154

Cuba is the home of the mojito, so naturally I made sure to sample as many as possible while there. Keen to recreate this refreshing cocktail at home, I paid attention to how they were made and even had a mojito-making lesson from a barman in Havana. Many Cuban bars use a combination of sugar syrup and soda water, but a few used lemonade instead, and when I was attempting to perfect the recipe at home, I found that sprite or lemonade worked just as well – and was super convenient, too. Here’s my tried and tested cheat’s mojito recipe:

Ingredients

White rum

Sprite or lemonade

Handful of mint

Juice of half a lime

1sp caster sugar

Handful of ice cubes

Method

Tear five or six mint leaves into a mortar, add the lime juice and the sugar, then use a pestle to grind the ingredients together until the mint breaks down. Pour into a glass, add a spring of mint, a good glug of rum and the same amount of lemonade. Give it all a good stir, then add the ice. Serve and enjoy.

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

Steeped in history, the captivating old colonial city of Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with its cobbled streets – complete with cannons that stick out from between the cobbles – and its colourful, characterful buildings it’s easy to see why.

The Plaza Mayor in the city centre (above) is wonderfully preserved and is home to the lovely Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, an art gallery and a number of museums, one of which, the interesting Museo de Arqueologia Guamuhaya, once welcomed the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The curious museum is devoted to local archaeology and its exhibitions take visitors on a journey from prehistoric times to the 20th century.

The view over Trinidad and the surrounding countryside from the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

Away from the main square, a handicrafts market snakes its way through the maze of narrow streets and it’s well-worth a browse, especially for pretty tablecloths and exquisite wooden carvings. For spectacular views over the city, climb the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco (above), then for a spot of revolutionary history, visit the Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos on its ground floor. The museum is dedicated to the revolution and features a poignant gallery that includes a photograph of every revolutionary who died during the conflict.

A cup of canchanchara at the Canchanchara bar in Trinidad, Cuba

Nearby is Canchánchara, a bar famous for its namesake cocktail (above) – a blend of white rum and honey, heated with lime juice. Served in small terracotta bowls, it’s delicious and as I start to sip my drink the band strikes up and I spend an enjoyable afternoon sipping cocktails while listening to the irresistible live music.

Dinner is a fantastic affair at the Taberna el Barracon. The food is exceptional and I enjoy a tasty salad with pickled cucumber, tomato, green beans and cabbage, followed by a magnificent plate of lobster, shrimp and fish cooked in the chef’s special sauce and served with plantain chips.

As night descends, the fun continues at the Casa de la Musica. Situated on a series of stone steps beside the Plaza Mayor, the Casa de la Musica is the place where Trinidadians gather each evening to listen to live music and dance. The outdoor event takes place every night, even in bad weather – when the heavens open, the musicians will wait for the rain to stop before they start playing again. The bands are incredible, as are the dancers. One performer picked up a table using just his teeth, while four of them used their gnashers to pick up a table that had a woman from the audience sitting on it! It’s great fun and not to be missed.