Saturday, November 25th 2017.

Destinations

Dries Jacobus
ENCHANTING CUBA

 

By Dries Jacobus, Managing Director Borealis

 

There is not much to say about airplane travel. Anything remarkable must be disastrous, so you define a good flight by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you weren’t nauseated by the food. So you are grateful.

We as experienced travelers though, we are not that easy to satisfy. Every detail catches our attention, we are picky when it comes to the level of service, the pitch, the food quality and the brands of the drinks offered. Our flight from Brussels to Frankfurt couldn’t be that much of a risk. We fly Lufthansa, so you expect a correct but somewhat dull service. What you pay is what you get. No bad surprises, all went well.

 

Cuba Cuba Cuba

 

GERMAN GRUNDLICHKEIT

But all is different when it comes to charters. The images come to my mind of cattle being driven into a cabin under the supervision of underpaid staff who only wants to have as little hassle as possible. That same staff who only execute company policy where the rule number one seems to be that all passengers need to be treated as empty-headed aliens who left their brains at home. Assuming that they have brains. That same staff who think that airport Alzheimer hits everybody, so everybody should be treated as such.

Well think again. We flew Condor, Lufthansa’s charter airline. It is as good as it gets. It looks like a regular flight with (real) business class seats, a middle section called “premium economy” and a regular economy class.This is not a regular charter as we know them. I love Germany for its “Grundlichkeit” and its level of service.

 

THE OLD-FASHIONED GLAMOUR OF HAVANA

CubaAn almost 10 hour flight takes you from business-like Frankfurt to colorful Havana. I can’t wait to get to this other world. Another world both in distance as in time. After fifteen years of intensive travelling this was going to be my first visit so I was looking forward to a new experience as a child who is looking out for Santa Claus.

Cuba is an intensely green island with lush landscapes and an enjoyable warm breeze. That is if you don’t go in hurricane season. Only 145 kilometers of Florida Street water separates warm and Caribbean Cuba from Miami with its neon lit 24 hours shopping malls, air-conditioned fast food restaurants, rocket launching installations, amusement parks and golf courses. What a difference with one of the last remaining communist countries in the world where the inhabitants can only dream of the freedom that we have in the West.

Upon arrival in Havana, I didn’t really know what to expect. Between the disembarkation and the arrival hall numerous half open big plastic bags are placed on the floor. Only after having passed the 12th one or so, I realize that they are used to catch the rain water Cubawhich leaks through the roof. Never seen this before in my entire life (at least not in an international airport). This promises to be a different kind of trip…

On our way to the epic “Hotel Nacional”, one of the landmarks of the country and named national monument in 1998 and put on the list of “Memory of the World” in 2010, we are informed not to expect the luxury that we are used to. Maybe it made me alter my expectations (being a good listener as I am – sometimes), but I must say that the hotel is a pleasant surprise. It is quite luxurious indeed. Luxurious but dated. Time must have stood still here for about 60 years. With its tiled long reception hall with cashiers hidden behind dark wooden bars, a bank which seems to have jumped out of an early John Wayne western movie and numerous yellowed photos of long-gone celebrities, this place looks like an old railway station. It breaths charm and nostalgia and it reminds me of the old colonial hotels built by the Dutch in the West-Indies or the old hunting palaces in India’s inland.

 

SLEEPING WITH MOBSTER-GHOSTS

The rooms on the 6th floor (the business floor), are a mixture of charm and style. All furniture is made of dark quality wood. No modern glass and plastics. Only pure down and simple quality. Needless to say that they are a little dated, but that comes with the iconic building. A modern NH-style room just would not feel right here. As a pleasant surprise I found two chairs standing aside a stylish low cocktail table in my room. Nothing special about two chairs unless I tell you that both were old fashioned rocking chairs. They just fitted perfectly with the decoration. I can’t stop fantasizing about who stayed here. Which famous mafia member or film star has ever slept in my room (or in this very same bed...)? Was anyone ever killed here? Did secret mafia meetings take place in my room planning their next retaliation attack somewhere in the dark 30s in Chicago or downtown New York? It is known that all notorious mafia members have stayed here at some point in time. They all came in through that same front door, eating at the same restaurant as where we had our breakfast. If only these walls could talk, they could fill a illustrious library full of crime stories and mist-covered thrillers with plots too scary to be true.

 

ENJOYING THE STREET THEATER

Havana is obviously a must-see and must-do when going to Cuba. It is such a diverse micro world with photogenic scenes on every street corner. You simply don’t know where to look first. There are little green parks and terraces everywhere. People sit together and chat in the shadow of the trees or a century-old building. It is as if you walk through a movie scene. A movie scene with a dark edge as poverty is everywhere. When you throw your empty plastic bottle in a bin, the first person behind you takers it back out again to recycle it and sell it for some extra pocket money.

In Havana we went to see some great rooftop terraces. Not quite like Manhattan, but better (and cheaper). Rooftop restaurants and bars like the Mundo Hotel (with the authentic room where Ernest Hemingway used to stay regularly), Iberostar Parque Central of de Santa Isabel Hotel. Ideal to overlook the downtown Havana towers, domes and old buildings. Obviously a fresh mojito or a traditional Cuban rum in the hand and a colorful sunset help to make the experience even more memorable.


Havana Havana Havana

 

CHEAP CIGARS, HARD LABOR

CubaWhile in Havana, don’t forget to stop at the Partagas cigar factory. It is located in the heart of Old Havana. Believe it or not, but right next to it there is a collection of old rusty steam locomotives and trains. They call it a museum, but in reality it is a scrap yard. It is simply unbelievable that this exists in the heart of 21st century capital city. Unfortunately taking pictures inside the cigar factory is not allowed, but visiting it is a real experience. You are guided through an old factory building which hasn’t changed in a century. Hundreds and hundreds of workers make one of Cuba’s greatest products: the famous cigars. At some points it feels as if you are in the middle of the “Priest Daens” movie. You are in the middle of hard and underpaid labor, in poor circumstances and with the doctrines being read by the speaker on a stage which is blasted through the intercom system dating back to pre-cold war times. When I asked our guide what the salary of the workers is, the answer was 1 US dollar. I was so naïve to ask if it was per hour. It was per day. I was shocked. Sometimes I am happy to be European.

 

BETWEEN THE BUENAVISTA SOCIAL CLUB AND KABILA

Havana is rising from the old days. Slowly but surely the city is being renovated. A very good example is the Plaza Vieja. An example of how old buildings are renovated and turned into shops, cafés and restaurants. Havana must have been absolutely fantastic in the early 20th century. On the corner there is a famous bar. The bar as such isn’t all that impressive, but the band that plays there is known all over the world. This is the place where the Buenavista Social Club plays every evening. Amazing to see them play with all their heart and soul. Pure and simple. Well done Ry Cooder.

On the corner of the Plaza Vieja we ran into a familiar face. At least for Belgians. Surrounded by security staff was President Kabila of the Republic of Congo. A nice twist to see a celebrity at only 3 meters away from us.


Cuba Cuba

On the way to the domestic airport we go through the Miramar neighborhood. Magnificent mansions of the 1930s with lush gardens, swimming pools, large driveways and palm trees. This must have been Beverly Hills of the early previous century. As we were driving on quite a good tarmac road, we stopped all of a sudden and were asked to get out and take our luggage. We were taken by surprise. We were supposed to go to the airport, and not to stop for a drink at a roadside café. Until it turned out that this roadside café was the airport. It felt as if we were shot back in time. I felt like I was in pre-Mobutu Congo at the time of the missionaries. A great feeling.
To all our surprise the plane was a brand new ATR 50-seater. When it arrived, it was non-stop guarded by armed forces. Again the pre-colonial feeling came up. This is definitely a different kind of trip.

 

EXPLORING THE REST OF CUBA

The 45-minute flight took us to Brujas Aeropouerto. If you speak Spanish then you know what it means: Witches Airport… As I am from Bruges, it gave me a nice feeling to see that we were flying to Brujas Airport (Bruges is translated to Brujas in Spanish).
From the “haunted airport” (in reality not more than a small hangar) our next destination is the remote Cayo Santa Maria. This is the eastern most set of northern islands where tourism is developing. New hotels and roads are being built on swamps and mangrove woods. A great example of civil engineering.

 

Cuba Cuba

 

The environment is absolutely great, the beach is long and beautiful, but you have to be careful in the selection of your hotel. We were staying in the Iberostar Ensenachos which was by far the best hotel that we have seen. The other 2 Melia hotels are interconnected and for incentives absolutely to be avoided in my humble opinion. Very good mass tourism products but if you are into incentives, stay away from there. There is a nice boutique hotel “Buenavista”, but unfortunately it was not on the program. A pity but the hotel we were staying in was definitely a nice alternative.

 

THE GREAT FIREWALL OF CUBA

Cuba stays Cuba. If you know that internet and the mobile phone network have only been installed recently in this area, it is still considered a luxury. So don’t try to find a WiFi network. There simply isn’t any. There is one (1!) computer with an internet connection for every 200 rooms in the hotel, so you are lucky if you find one. Internet is possible at 6 USD for half an hour! If you would compare this to Belgian prices, it would cost 300,00 EUR for half an hour. If you travel with some friends, you can charter a business jet for that kind of money! If you then think back to the poor employees making the world’s best cigars who have to work 6 days for the equivalent of 30 minutes of internet, it makes your head spin.

 

SANTA MARIA & TRINIDAD

Our transfer by road from Cayo Santa Maria to Trinidad brought us to Santa Clara. A city famous for the battle where Che Guevara derailed a train full of weapons and was able to overthrow the reigning government lead by Battista. It was the start of Communism in Cuba under the leadership of 3 legendary guerilla fighters: Che Guevarra, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl Castro (the current president of Cuba). There is a big memorial site and mausoleum dedicated to life and death of Che and his fellow fighters who died later in a battle believed to be lead by the CIA in the rain forest of Bolivia.

Cuba Cuba

Trinidad is a great traditional town in the south of the island. The old centre gives you all that you are looking for. It is colorful, traditional and picturesque. It is also here that we saw the first beggars. Everybody tries to make an extra dollar on tourism.
Have lunch in one of the private living rooms converted into restaurants (we went to the Mesón del Regidor which was a really fine place), stroll the cobbled streets, walk into an old church or chapel and enjoy the many stalls with arts and crafts. This is Cuba as you know it from books and magazines.

We visited the Iberostar Trinidad. A nice 40 bedroom boutique hotel on a little square. It is entirely renovated and has a very colonial look. A nice hotel. The main disadvantage is that it is an Iberostar. Staff are dressed in Thomas Cook outfits and all you find is Thomas Cook and Neckermann brochures. What a pity (unless you work for TC of course). But on the other hand, as the hotel only has 40 rooms, it can be used on an exclusive basis. A great advantage for average sized groups! On top of that it is only possible from July until October, so you can take advantage of the incentive high season of September and October. Careful planning is advised here. The drive from Trinidad to Varadero is about three and a half hours. It is a nice scenery ride, but stopping at Cienfuegos is only good for a drink or smoke stop.

 

A BACK TO THE 90s HOLIDAY RESORT

cubaThe last few days we stayed at famous Varadero. A peninsula literally fully built with hotels and resorts. Most of them are dating back to the 1990s. Dated, old fashioned and most of them are in (soft) renovation. We stayed at the Melia Varadero, considered one of the better hotels in Varadero. A 5-star property on paper. To us Europeans, hardly worth a 3-star.

Being a holiday resort, there are plenty of possibilities for entertainment and distraction. Jetski excursions, catamarans tours, dolphin shows… you name it, it’s there. Be careful not to be too excited though as it is pure mass tourism as we have known it 20 years ago. In other words, don’t expect incentive level services unless you can privatize. Having said that, we had a great dinner at an unexpected venue, the “Mansion Xanadú”, a century-old mansion built by a French industrialist right at the entry of the peninsula. A fantastic building with a great ocean view. The food is delicious, and the place breaths the grandeur of a European castle.
If you have a group that wants to enjoy an all-in product, Varadero could be an appropriate destination. If you have a real incentive client who wants full flexibility, Varadero may not be the ideal location for you.
On the other hand, as we flew with Condor, we could catch a direct flight back to Frankfurt, so we didn’t have to make our way back to Havana which is definitely an advantage.

 

CUBA AND INCENTIVES

As mentioned, Cuba certainly has great opportunities and offers stunning landscapes, warm people and picturesque places. The ambiance is great, music is omnipresent, beaches are beautiful and the weather is great if you go in the right season. A great destination all together.
The downturn is that you have to be very careful in your planning and prepare thoroughly. Even more than you would do for another destination. It is so easy to step into the trap of mass tourism, so you need to have a good DMC. The hotels are there, the services are there, but you need to handpick them and be aware that a lot (if not everything) is government controlled, so you don’t just do what you want.

 

pool pool pool

 

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