Why Cuba is the perfect off-beat family holiday destination
Deciding on a holiday for my family is often a tiny bit tricky. My 11-year-old always wants sporting activities of some kind, but the 16-year-old prefers “to chill”; my husband, meanwhile, is fascinated by architecture and loves to walk around old buildings.
And me? I want, well, everything else: sun, rest, a bit of culture and someone to cook for me. Cuba might seem an odd fit: a communist Caribbean oddity, the thorn in America’s side. But it’s that very peculiarity that makes it work: a family holiday that offers something out of the ordinary but which nevertheless should suit every taste. Combine the urban intrigue of Havana with the beautiful beaches of Varadero and you have a seriously distracting itinerary on your hands.
I had read so much about Cuba – Fidel Castro, the missile crisis, Guantánamo, casas particulares, Cuba Libre cocktails, the Buena Vista Social Club – before arriving that I thought I knew what to expect. But coming into Havana delivers an unprecedented assault on the senses. The place simply bursts with life, colour and sounds. It was almost too intoxicating for those first few minutes; the four of us just sat in our taxi feeling gently stunned by the colours and the beauty of the crumbling buildings and the speed of life shooting past us.
First stop: the hotel Iberostar Parque Central, which turned out to be a delight, a grand building with a rooftop pool and stunning views over the city. It is in the perfect location, set on the border between Old Havana – where most tourists flock to, walking around the small squares, drinking in the infamous rum bars – and Central Havana, which is also very old but more neglected, and delivers those iconic street scenes you see in travel photography competitions.
The Parque Central’s busy lobby turned out to be an incredibly welcoming and a very friendly place to make home for a few days and was always buzzing, night or day. The Virgin Holidays representative at the hotel, Sonia, arranged a walking tour of the city for us with a kindly guide called Leo. He walked and talked us through the streets and squares of Old Havana, unpicking the extraordinary tapestry of Cuban history – from slavery to cigars – at the same time.
As we tucked in to a very simple lunch (Cuba’s food is basic, mostly chicken, pork, rice and fruit – but you can find fish on the menus, too) we watched a sultry couple dancing to Cuban music and I let myself melt into the atmosphere.
Already Havana was shaping up to be everything I had imagined. My younger daughter was too excited to think of sport; the elder one was wide-eyed at the vibrancy. And my husband was snapping away at the crumbling architecture with gusto.
The main street in the old town is Obispo, which is alive with bars and restaurants. We’d been warned before stepping out that we might get the hard sell from some of the restaurateurs, but being asked to try their food was as far as it went, and the people attempting to entice us were always polite and engaging.
We opted for a place on the main street up two flights of stairs and found ourselves eating on a balcony in a family’s home, while the man of the house cooked for us. In one corner were two other tables; in the other a three-piece band played traditional music. The others had chicken and rice and vegetables, I had my usual fish and pineapple skewers. The bill came to about £7 per person, including mojitos.
And then Havana took us over: we booked a drive in a 1957 pink-and-white open-top Chevrolet; we gawped at Revolution Square, where Castro used to address the crowds; and then we ventured to Club Tropicana, the open-air cabaret that lures virtually every tourist.
Forget what Wham! told you: at Club Tropicana the drinks are not free, but they are included in the price of admission. (A half bottle of Havana Club rum, to be precise, along with a cola mixer, a handful of peanuts and a cigar.) We started to giggle from the moment the music started and we were beside ourselves by the finale, when sequinned, bikini-clad dancing girls arrived, balancing what looked like enormous chandeliers on their heads.
It was hard to work out what was most fascinating: the slightly awkward dancers or the bemused audience members from around the globe, all wondering what on earth they were doing there.
In Havana I felt as if I was walking through my own holiday history, too. At moments I was picking through my memories of Italy and then I’d turn a corner and I was evoking stays in Barbados, or the USA, or Spain and Africa. A huge array of influences have blended together to form this unique and exhilarating place – and the constant soundtrack of Cuban rhythms makes a stay here feel almost dreamlike.
Of course, we didn’t want to leave: five days was just enough to scratch the surface. But Varadero beckoned: 17 miles (27km) of white, sandy beaches just a two-hour drive away. I always feel slightly awkward about all-inclusive hotels. But when we arrived the girls’ faces said it all: heaven! I quickly let go of my doubts and instead allowed what is a wonderful, welcoming hotel in a stunning location wash over me.
Iberostar Varadero is large and it sprawls, set around five pools and with its own stretch of beach. The huge main pool has a swim-up bar, where it was all too easy to overdo it on the piña coladas. The five restaurants should be enough for anyone, but if not, there’s a bar and barbecue shack on the beach.
The hotel provides kayaks, pedalos and catamarans on the beach and we took full advantage. Our cat outing (skippered by a pro) was a serene moment on the gentle ocean as we calmly skimmed across the tranquil, turquoise waves.
A more unlikely highlight was a trip to visit the local primary school, the Oscar Rodriguez school, in Cardenas. I had asked at the hotel if we could hand over the things that we had brought for local schools (we had been told before leaving home that they were in dire need of stationery) and was asked in return if we would like to be taken there.
A half-hour drive from the resort, this town felt like a throwback to a long-forgotten age: the main modes of transport were horse, cart and bicycle. The children we met were in year six, the same age as our youngest daughter; the smiles on their faces when we arrived made us all feel rather overwhelmed. To thank us for the pens and paper we had brought, they had practised a speech in English, which left us all a little choked.
We managed to do some sport, too (that final tick for the 11-year-old), venturing down the coast to snorkel in the coral reefs (in our own episode of Blue Planet) and we also swam at the Saturno freshwater caves, a bat-filled natural wonder.
And, yes, we just chilled. One night we hijacked the sounds being played at the beach bar for a wedding: the four of us danced the night away, having our own party for four on the sand.
Now? Ask my 16-year-old and she will explain that Havana is made up of all the best eras and best countries in the world. Ask the 11-year-old and she will say: when can we go back? My husband can’t stop going on about the vintage cars and Havana’s crumbling beauty.
And if you ask me, I’ll tell you that Cuba is the perfect family destination. It has got into my soul and my heart. I cannot wait to return.
Virgin Holidays (0344 557 3870; virginholidays.co.uk) offers 11 nights in Cuba from £1,199 per person including scheduled Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick to Havana, five nights’ B&B accommodation at Iberostar Parque Central, followed by six nights’ all-inclusive accommodation at Iberostar Varadero, with transfers included. Price is per person, based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing standard rooms, and is based on a departure on Dec 6 2018.