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Visiting Cuba

We decided to make Cuba our two week family holiday this summer. We found dreamy, lush Caribbean beaches, lively vibrant culture and rich colonial history, on top of going to a communist state just a few miles south of the US.

We started with five days in the capital. It was busy, noisy (Cubans love their music and dance), hot, endlessly fascinating and we loved it!

There are 150,000 vintage American cars on the island, many in Havana, and there's no better way to cruise through the streets. We did a couple of journeys by rickshaw when we had a night out at the famous Buena Vista Social Club.

The Revolution Museum is in a former palace and is a chance to get up close to Fidel Castro's tank, boat and other artefacts. Ernest Hemingway's favourite bar, the Floridita, is also a favourite with tourists (and the food is good!).

Out hotel, the Telegrafo was very central. Much of the pleasure of Havana is in walking the city. Amazing but faded architecture is quietly being renovated. We had a couple of trips out, one to the lovely Vinales valley and tobacco plantations, another to Hemingway's perfectly preserved country house.

Cienfuegos and Trinidad
These two colonial should not be missed. Old tramlines run through Cienfuegos, a town small enough for you to walk to the main square, down to the old seaport, and then drop into sun-dappled leafy courtyards for refreshment as you listen to the band.

Trinidad is a perfectly preserved 500 year old Spanish city with cobbled streets, palaces, churches, galleries, markets and people still getting around on horseback (often, machete in the belt and mobile phone in the hand). We stayed with a family in a Casa – our own rooms round a pretty garden, perfect for breakfasting.

The best beaches are on the this peninsula, and our hotel, the Blau Varadero, was top class. Four days of all inclusive luxury and great food was a nice way to finish the holiday after ten days on the road. We went snorkelling and kayaking and if we'd been there longer would probably have tried out scuba diving too.

We went in July which was hot and quite humid, around 36 most days. It is also the rainy season, so, like Florida, you get maybe an hour's rain and storm a few afternoons a week.

Getting booked and getting about
Our tour company was The Holiday Place www.holidayplace.co.uk , Cuba specialists who looked after us very well and tailored the holiday to what we wanted and to our budget. Apart from airport transfers, we travelled by private taxi, which was a fantastic way of seeing a bit more of the island.

Flying there - Virgin Atlantic Gatwick to Havana
Ten hours in economy class is never going to be a good experience and it wasn't this time. As a reluctant connoisseur of long haul economy, I found Virgin provided better food and onboard entertainment than most and with excellent cabin crews. But you are still stuck with narrow seats, cramped legs and a scrum at boarding and landing. Never a good start and end to a holiday.

Life in Cuba
Cubans are warm, sociable and friendly. You need to be sensible like anywhere (eg... Leicester) but it is a very safe place to visit. Bands play on the streets and your feet soon start tapping.

It is a communist country under a trade embargo so you don't find great consumer shops and some things are hard to get. Most people work for the state in some shape or form and there are restrictions on owning property. Healthcare is good and literacy a phenomenal 99.7%.

Food is plentiful, but fresh produce is hard to source - street markets are the best bet - and menus are more limited than we are used to here. Mangoes and avocados grow fresh and taste divine.

It is a closed currency and a cash economy – we took all our of holiday money in cash. There are two currencies, local pesos and international pesos, but once you're there it's straightforward.

Very little English is spoken outside major hotels so it helps to brush up on a bit of Spanish. With the US embassy reopening this August, it seems inevitable that the country will open up. Hopefully it will keep its personality. We would like to visit in about five years to see what life is like.

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