Multifaceted Cuba

Contentious and beguiling;  just two of the words to describe the perplexing island of Cuba. With its white sand beaches, vibrant and eclectic nightlife, colourful Spanish colonial architecture and captivating national dance,  this Caribbean island nation, steeped in complex political history and captivating landscapes, is on the cusp of becoming a world class luxury travel destination. Katie Nelson explores this rundown paradise and asks whether it is ready to change pace.

Cuba is a country of indescribable magic. It is well worn but wonderful, rundown but renowned, fun yet frustrating.  Behind the sometimes tattered façades, gold dust lingers. These rich contrasts make travel here the exciting, exhilarating ride that it is. Still trapped in a time warp and spinning from an economic embargo that endured for more than half a century, this is a country where for the time being, you can wave goodbye to Western certainties and expect the unexpected. However, with the United States and Cuba having officially resumed diplomatic relations and reopened their embassies after severing ties 54 years ago, we don’t expect this gem to stay untouched for much longer.

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Photos clockwise from above: Capitol in Havana; Colonial town cityscape of Trinidad, Cuba. UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tower of Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos; Capitol building in Havanna, Cuba

“Still trapped in a time warp and spinning from an economic embargo that endured for more than half a century, this is a country where for the time being, you can wave goodbye to Western certainties and expect the unexpected.”

With that said, this doesn’t mean there is full access for American tourists just yet. If you are an American passport holder looking to travel to Cuba on a whim, you might want to put away that passport and wait a little while longer. Even though this is a new chapter in what’s been a tumultuous history between the two countries, one that took several rounds of negotiations since President Obama announced in December 2014 that the U.S. was changing its Cuba policy; both the travel restrictions and trade embargo still remain in place. The Treasury Department maintains 12 categories for authorised travel; including family visits, journalistic activity, professional research and public performances among others. So, while some American citizens can get permission to go to Cuba for specific purposes, touring the beaches is not one of them. As an American you will need to travel with a Cuba travel organisation that has an official license from the U.S. State Department, like Insight Cuba. And, while your tour may include stops at museums, historic sites, the Bay of Pigs or a local Communist Party block meeting, purely recreational activities like visiting the beach or scuba diving are prohibited from tour itineraries.


Varadero Beach in Cuba

These restrictions of course do not apply to other visiting nationalities. Most tourists are able to freely explore the archetypal tableau of revolutionary rhetoric, with classic cars gliding past faded colonial buildings and a population who dance on an endless ribbon of salsa. With its pleasant climate, stunning beaches, magnificent architecture and distinct cultural history, Cuba has long been an attractive destination for tourists. Having been Spain’s last, oldest, and closest colony until 1898, in the first part of the 20th century Cuba continued to benefit from big investments, creation of industries, and immigration. As relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated rapidly after the Cuban Revolution and the resulting expropriation and nationalisation of businesses, the island became cut off from its traditional market by the embargo and travel ban imposed on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. The tourist industry declined to record low levels within two years of Castro’s accession to power. By the mid-1960s the Communist government had banned and eliminated all private property, outlawed the possession of foreign currency, and eliminated the tourist industry all together. With the newly opened embassies and strengthened relationships between America and Cuba we see a major luxury tourist boom on the horizon for Cuba.

So, if you do get a chance to explore this enchanted land make sure to explore as much as there is to offer. Spend some time in Havana, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The old centre in particular is captivating with its mix of 16th and 17th century Spanish Baroque architecture, neoclassical monuments and charming homes. Other cities worth visiting include Trinidad, Baracoa and Santiago. For a more scenic view of the country, visit Sierra Maestra National Park and climb Cuba’s highest peak. If you’re a fan of cigars, visit the tobacco fields of the Viñales Valley. Cuba’s main beach resort area is Varadero, comprised of 13 miles of fine white sand beach with an extensive selection of water sports and lined by all-inclusive resorts. Guardalavaca, another of Cuba’s top beach destinations, is near interesting dive and archaeological sites and has some excellent resorts. If you want to get away from it all and don’t mind a lack of facilities, head to Cayo Sabinal, where you’ll find undisturbed beaches tucked away.

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The Hotel is situated just inside the historical centre of the electric and sensual city of Havana.

The Saratoga was one of Havana’s most stylish establishments of its time. Notorious since the 1930’s as a favourite haunt of artists and socialites from all over the world, for its superb cuisine, the open air entertainments held in its pavement arcade, and the concerts given there by such renowned musicians as the Anacaona Orchestra. The nowadays Saratoga has been recreated behind the original façade. It combines exquisite style and sense of place as well as state of the art technology. The Saratoga has all the amenities one would wish for in an exclusive city center hotel, including a stunning rooftop pool. The hotel has 96 rooms including 7 suites and various junior suites, and is managed to an international 5-star standard. The Hotel Saratoga is Old Havana’s grandest hotel, having been carefully designed for especially discerning travellers who wish to combine cultural and historical exploration of the city with enjoyment of its world famous nightlife.

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