A Cuban Christmas Gift

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I have to say I was overwhelmed when about 8 months ago I received an invitation from Star Clipper to attend a hosted trip to Cuba.  A trip that would allow me to see both the city of Havana, and then explore the still unspoilt coastline of Cuba. Quite an exciting adventure, I am sure you will agree.

So 8 months later here I am.  On what is day two of this sensational trip.

Yesterday we flew from Gatwick on the daily flight to Havana. Leaving at an agreeable 1230 our flight took 9.5 hours.  So we arrived at about 1730 the day light had just turned to dusk which was a shame as I was eager to start my adventure by looking around.  On advice we changed some cash (and only cash was accepted) into Cuban CUC. This was a fast and efficient service and all the money exchange bureaus were located once outside and were very easy to use.

The drive from the airport to the hotel was just 20 minutes; we arrive in a downtown area of Havana to our hotel for the night. The hotel Capri, this hotel in my mind delivered an easy 4star that was of a good standard. Rooms were spacious and adequately equipped.

We headed into the “old town” for dinner.  The Plaza de la Catedral    I was instantly taken with this part of the town. The history of the buildings was breath-taking, full of very gold grand buildings dating back from the 17th century. The area was charming quaint and stunningly beautiful. We had dinner at Paladar Doña Eutimia.  Known as a Doña meaning a converted house as opposed to a restaurant.   Recommended to us we pre- booked which I would suggest you do as it is very popular. We had a lovely table outside which was perfect. The food was very cheap working out for two courses and two cocktails at approximately £15 per person.  Fish, rice, meat and beans were in abundance.  Perfect.  On our walk to dinner we met many local people offering directions and smiles.  People were charming and friendly and there was a real sense of calm everywhere.  All accompanied by the abundance of charming cobbled back streets oozing with character.

Day 2. After an excellent breakfast we had a couple of hours of free time. I chose to explore the nearby area.  My highlight had to be the cars!  What can I say; it was like heading back to the 60’s and seeing one classic car after another. Everything from bright pink conveyance Buicks, Chevrolets to old rusty Hillmans’ and beaten up fiats!  The colour and the charm of the cars are in abundance. Some of the drivers of the older cars almost looked pleasantly surprised that their car should actually work!  Bright and fun and transporting you back to an era of times gone past

Again the architecture was exquisite, a delightful combination of old, mixed in with a real sense of Art Deco colours and charm with an almost poverty type ambience prevalent throughout.

We did take a few minutes to explore another hotel that we often recommend for our clients who wish to visit Cuba: Nationals Hotel – a stunning 5 star colonial hotel. This is the place to say if you want to have a little more luxury and charm, but it is big! There were also some fabulous more boutique type hotels which looked stunning and are well located in the old town.  The Placio Marques de San Felipe Hotel comes well recommended.

We then head to the port of Cienfuegos   A 4 hour journey using mainly the motorway.  Quite a different experience to the UK, this is a quiet road where you will see horse drawn carriages and plenty of wild life in all the surrounding fields.

We arrive in the town and take part in a very easy check in to allow us to board the Star Flyer. Of all the cruise ships I have been lucky enough to travel on this is the product that excites me most. I can’t wait to get on-board her again!   The boat looks shiny and bright and everything nautical just seems perfectly placed. A truly exceptional experience

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We are met with music, canapés and a local cocktail! The Star Clipper experience has once again begun.  My cabin a cat 3 number 123 seemed more spacious than others I had been in before. The boat has had a good amount of refit in terms of bedding, curtains etc and the difference is impressive We decided to come off the boat and explore Cienfuegos as this would be our only opportunity.  I am so pleased we did as we all fell in love with this quaint and interesting town.  We had a horse drawn carriage which took us on a 15min journey into the heart of the town.  Intrigued by the locals and taking in what we could of their lifestyle.  We then enjoyed a little bartering at the local markets.  Things here are so inexpensive and all very crafty. We all agreed we would like to stay in this quaint little town as we hadn’t discovered all of the hidden treasures that this town seemed to offer. With many beautiful colourful buildings, statues and monuments in abundance it was a visual feast for us all.

Our first night on board was entertaining. We set sail at 10pm and as always I got drawn in with the romance of the sea and the sails. Vangellis, natural sails, beautiful light shining and the sounds of the sea, perfection.

As we awake on Tuesday we are only a few hours before we reach, Playa Ancon. A small friendly city and home to a Unesco world heritage site.  This port is reached by tender… And you arrive safely on the beach

The view of the beach ahead of us is breath-taking.  I would say at a guess that the stretch of white sandy beach was at least a mile long.  Striking to say the least.

We were greeted ashore with complimentary Mojitos and then haggled well for a ride into the town of Trinidad.  We got a great rate to 15CAC  to travel in a fabulous old convertible car and have a fun filled 20 minute drive into the town.  Trinidad is a quaint very old town that is once again full of cobbled (very uneven) streets… colours and craft shops are in abundance.

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This was by far and away the best place we visited for buying souvenirs and local craft and art.  A huge market with prices so good

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Once we finished into town we all enjoyed a few hours relaxing on the beach.

Sun loungers were available and a drink was easy to obtain from the beach bar.

Day 4 – Was a day at sea. Time to enjoy the facilities on board and take lots of photos of this nautical sailing experience.  I enjoyed a fantastic massage – a full hour for just £40 representing great value for money

Day 5 – Punta Frances, Isla de Juventud

Again a tender took us to the beach.  And what a beach it was!!  Completely un spoilt and with only one tiny beach bar situated there.  The white sand was perfect and the sea crystal clear!  A beautifully relaxing day.  A few of us did try to go a little off the beaten track, expecting to find at least a local town – but truly there is nothing.  We walked in dense trees and foliage and regretted it very quickly as we were attacked by mosquitos!  So I don’t recommend that.  Stick to the beach and enjoy.

Day 6 – Cayo  Largo and a day and one of the nicest beaches I have ever visited.  Here I swam with dolphins a dream come true and enjoyed a few hours on the extensive beach.  The transfer by tender is about 40 minutes but worth it…

Beautiful beach and the experience of swimming amongst the dolphins was breath taking.  See my top tips below for more details

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On our last day of the cruise we disembarked early in the morning sad to leave all our new friends and this beautiful part of the country

We then take the 4 hour journey back to Havana and have an afternoon and all day on the Monday before our flight home to enjoy this beautiful city, photos to follow of some of the things we saw and experienced including indoor markets, touring the old tour, China Town, Rum factory and Cigar Factory. For me the time I spent exploring off was more fun than the organised tours that we followed.  We saw more and the Rickshaw bikes gave us real access to the true poverty of this city whilst enjoying the newly restored buildings too.

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Top tips for this cruise

Cienfuegos

Whilst Havana is the most famous city and one that most packages encourage you to stay in Cienfuegos. I would look to include at least one or two nights in this lovely old town.

Money

This is important. During the cruise the smaller ports simply do not have ATM’s or indeed banks so you need cash. Even in the bigger towns finding banks is not easy. So I would suggest exchanging money at the airport in a higher quantity that you would normally. Remember you need sterling or euro notes to purchase your money; you cannot use your card to get cash in hotels or in most shops.  You can from ATM’s but they are very few and far between

Vintage Cars

A must do enjoy a ride in a classic car. This was easy in Trinidad. We paid approx.

15cac per car each way to the town and back. Approx. 20min drive

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Explore and don’t be afraid

Why not go a little off the beaten track and explore. A very safe country and the people are fabulous, and we saw so much more by taking our selves of the beaten track as a group.

Forms of Travel

In Cienfuegos if you don’t have extra time here pre or post, on day of arrival once on board and checked in take the time to go into the local town. We went by horse drawn taxi/carriage at a cost of 20 CAC return, a charming way to travel and hear about the locals in Havana, we travelled many times by the bike rickshaws.  About £2.50 (3CAC’s) took us about 20 minutes on the fun bikes and all through the back streets exploring the real Cuba, worth every second.   The vintage cars are a must and don’t forget to have a go and haggle over the price.  The mini bubble cars are a great experience.

Beaches

On this cruise you really are going to see some of the nicest beaches in the world in Cato largo the beach is exceptional. All facilities are available. The best bit for me was of course the Dolphins

Swimming with the Dolphins

If you wish to swim or interact with them you will need cash.  50CAC for 15mins interact or 90CAC to swim and interact. You can also buy photos of your experience from 10euros to 40euros. So if this appeal please take your cash ashore as there is no other way to pay and no facility to get cash

Tender

All the ports of call on this cruise are reached by Tender.

Journey times

A longer drive from Havana to Cienfuegos is up to 4hours.

Gifts for the children

In the more remote areas the children are very grateful for little gifts.

Soap, pens, lipsticks etc. Take your unwanted bedroom/cabin toiletries as this will make their day and may receive the littlest of smiles that will mean a lot.

In summary – Cuba is a must.  A fantastic place steeped in history and culture.  Cuba and Star Clipper were the perfect match and one I could really recommend.

I have hundreds of photos so if you would like to see more to quench your curiosity of this impressive country just let me know.

Call Clare at Ponders on 01954 232802

 

 

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