It was with some trepidation that I booked my first return to Cuba since my backpacking days of 1994 - I'd spent over a month there and it still ranks in the top five of the best ever holidays. Just how much would this once unique nation have changed and how would the experience differ from the last culturally and historically rich journey?
Thankfully there was no need to be concerned. Yes there have been changes and yes there were more people then I previously encountered but the heart of the country still beats strong and it is as distinctive a destination as it ever was.
For the discerning traveller there are a few key elements to consider...
There has been a huge amount of investment in Havana Vieja (The Old Town) to return the area to its former glory as one of the finest examples of a Spanish Colonial city in the Americas. The focus is on restoration rather than developing modern additions to the city. To facilitate this, Cuba has brought in investment from the UN and Europe among other contributors.
Havana still has the romantic feel of old with cobbled streets dotted with the throwback Neon from the golden age when Havana was the playground of the rich and infamous.
Arts and Culture
Cuba oozes music; you can't pass a doorway without hearing the smooth rhythms of the likes of Buena Vista Social Club or more recently the macho beats of imported reggaeton. Every bar and restaurant has a band churning out the unique Afro-Cuban version of jazz, rumba and salsa.
In recent years Cuban contemporary dance has hit the spotlight with the world-renowned Carlos Acosta, once the lead dancer at the Royal Ballet in London, opening and subsequently rebuilding an impressive dance school in Havana. The Alicia Alonso National Ballet has also hit heady heights, travelling as far afield as China to perform.
The Gran Teatro de La Havana puts on weekly performances of opera to an educated crowd and has a loyal following while, at the other end of the spectrum, small independent music and dance companies are popping up in some amazing spaces offering completely different experiences such as a summary of the history of dance in Cuba from African dances through rumba, contradenza, cha-cha, mambo and salsa.
Dining and Nightlife
This was always a low point for many travellers going to Cuba - 'amazing place but the food was dreadful' was an oft heard comment.
The good news is that the food has improved immeasurably. During 'the special period' of the 90s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its funding, food was scarce for Cubans. Some would go so far as to argue that the country was experiencing a famine. For travellers they did not have the hardship of starvation but there was very little food to go around.
Today's experience is completely different. I ate sushi on the seafront with the restaurant's boat parked in the marina in front, with which they returned the catch of the day. In the Vedado district, El Cocinero serves local fresh grilled lobster to a multi-national crowd. In the Vistamar district you can find a good truffle risotto. There is great food to be had and not at extortionate prices. The old Paladars, which are family or cooperative run restaurants, offer some great local dishes.
The late night life was always fun in Havana with numerous late night bars and clubs. The new kid on the block is Fabrica De La Arte, an event and installation space that houses dance, concerts, theatre, galleries and myriad bars.
The 50s American classics are still here, usually with a Honda engine under the bonnet, but impeccably restored on the outside and these are great for a tour of the old town or a short hop in the city. Fortunately for longer drives there is now a newer fleet of imported vehicles to travel in comfort, even with the blessing of a seatbelt.
The roads are much improved and more is being done to develop the network, there are times however when you need to put up with a few bumps to get to the further flung destinations.
This is where things have really changed. For those wanting a luxury five star hotel in Havana there is now the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, which offers everything the international traveller would expect from a five star hotel. Perhaps more relevant to Original Travel clients who lean towards unique and boutique options, a number of small 4-6 bedroom hotels have opened up in restored colonial mansions, particularly in the once exclusive Vedado district. We now have a plethora of choices with varying degrees of luxury, lots of local Cuban influence and welcoming hosts.
This was a late addition to the list. In the 'special period' you were lucky to get through to someone on a landline; I once spent the night on the floor of an abandoned weather station because I could not contact the beach huts I was aiming for to see if they had a room. They did not.
In today's Cuba our team on the ground handed me a pre-loaded mobile phone with a concierge number programmed in for my every need. There was also sporadic internet in hotels and at hotspots dotted around the country. Two days after leaving El Cocodrilo (so nicknamed due to the shape of the island) the government announced they were opening up the whole country to 3G internet access, undoubtedly accelerating the pace of change in the country.
The most important side of Cuba. Wherever you travel the people are interesting and interested. Any one of your local guides will be as intrigued by your lifestyle as you are in the implications of living in this blossoming country. Wherever you travel you will meet fascinating, educated and passionate people who want to share their experiences with you.
Cuba has changed, but only a little and it retains its identity and natural beauty as 'The fairest Island human eyes have yet beheld' (Christopher Columbus, 1492). So if you're interested in your own Cuban adventure, get in touch.