29 MAY 2014: Sunset on the Malecon in Havana is a fabled place. I watch a wave of vintage convertibles drive by me. The bright jellybean colours are a stark contrast to the dishwater grey new vehicles at home. This is where families escape the steamy city heat and head for the wild sea breezes. Where friends meet, children play and lovers linger.

Cuba is a joy to the senses. It’s like the candy jar your mom used to say was for later. It’s the temptation.

That’s Havana in a nutshell. A seductress, despite years of neglect she still holds us under her spell. I am fascinated each time I return.

Thankfully the 34th International Tourism FITCuba, the country’s annual tourism trade show, occurred in the Cuban capital. Don’t get me wrong I love the beach and so do Canadians. More than 1 million arrive in Cuba - mostly for the sandy shores.

The four day event which took place May 6-10 at the Morro Cabana Castle had a full schedule that included ribbon cutting, presentations and hobnobbing with tour operators and partners. Each year Cuba selects a country to which it pays homage. This year’s honourary nation was France.

FITCUBA by the numbers

419 tour operators
149 travel agents
195 media
175 hotel group reps
58 airlines
48 countries
1,187 overall participants

City products

Rum por favor

One of Cuba’s biggest exports besides cigars is rum. Now the Havana Club Rum Museum located in Old Havana “Habana Vieja” is ready for its next big push: US exports.

I don’t want to jinx things by jumping the gun - so let’s just say I saw the inventory and see that the signature 7-year-old elixir is already being sold in the shop under the label “Havanista.” It’s exactly the same price as the acclaimed 7-year-old Havana Club.

“We don’t know when,” smiles Yoana my guide remaining hopeful on future US sales.

For 7CUC it’s an interesting tour with rum tasting and nowhere else in the world will you see huge posters of city icons...

Hotel Santa Isabel

...that is until you go to Hotel Santa Isabel. The iconic 27-room landmark hotel located at Plaza de Armas has a wall of fame too but this one is devoted to past celeb guests. Sting, Jimmy Carter, Robert Plant and Jack Nicholson stayed here.

The swanky spot makes a great pit stop at which to refresh after walking in the blazing sun. Plaza de Armas is a magnet for the literati with its book fair and Fidel Castro clones. It’s by the dog-eared books of Hemingway, magazines and esoteric Spanish poetry tomes where I discovered one historic diva had her husband, Cuba’s governor Tacon, replace the noisy cobbled stone streets with wood to reduce the sound because she couldn’t sleep at night.

Another governor’s wife, Dona Isabel de Bobadilla, the wife of Hernando de Soto is legendary in Havana. The official symbol of the city, Cubans it seems still can’t get enough of her.

After her hubby failed to return from a mariner’s quest to Florida, like a Penelope she played the dutiful wife and listlessly wandered up the rocky steps of the Castillo de la real Fuerza nightly to whine and pine for his return. (A weathervane of her likeness is perched on the watchtower).

By the Havana Club Rum Museum the story of La Giraldilla as she is known resurfaces. Next time you pour from the bottle see the seal. She’s there - donning a crown in a Grecian robe holding a cross. Fittingly she’s the official logo of Havana Club Rum.

Art and Dance

Along Calle Mercaderes across from the legendary Ambos Mundos Hotel (a Hemingway haunt and shrine) see a fabulous rotating art exhibition. On my visit a young Cuban artist Mauro Corda who has a love of fish was spotlighted. I spotted a massive marlin sculpture near Hemingway’s hotel which was a fun tie-in with his book, Old Man and the Sea.

The Old Square “Plaza Vieja” has been pretty much revamped with the exception of a couple of buildings currently under restoration. Luxe brands like Lacoste are tenants so expect a chi-chi factor. Another discovery: sculptures like Roberto Fabello’s Viaje Fantastico, a rendition of a nude woman seizing the day by riding a rooster is loaded with hidden messages.

The Jose Marti Theatre first opened in 1884 but over the years was shut down, until it recently reopened after a major refurbishment. Now it’s all lights and action at this hotbed of operetta and Cuban theatre. Performances regularly occur. Check at your hotel for listings.

Tropicana can’t be left unsaid. After 75 years the alfresco concert hall in the jungle shows it has staying power. The acts might be a little long in the tooth but the energy of the dancers and the hot salsa rhythms from the orchestra in the sky is a sight to behold. Thumbs up on this!

Check the video http://tinyurl.com/pat7g38


Take a sunset catamaran cruise aboard Marlin Nautica (www.nauticamarlin.com). Departures are from the Havana port. Great skyline views watch pelicans and get ready to Hemingway-it as you sail to the Hemingway marina. Be sure to drop by the Cova restaurant bearing the highly coveted trophy for the Ernest Hemingway International Billfish Fishing tournament. The next one is scheduled June 9-14.

The marina’s location is another stunner lined in mid century architecture. I could imagine back in the day the tycoons who had a crash pad there, sipping their daiquiris and watching Papa at his annual tourney.

Don’t be afraid to hop a ride with a coco taxi, hitch a ride in a classic 50s convertible taxi or take the Transtur Double Decker sightseeing bus you see whip around the corners. You get a real sense of the city, the people and witness a true character of a place that is more or less disappearing everywhere else in our mono-cultural world.


Day trippin’: Artemisa

Commune living looks idyllic in Las Terrazas.

Situated in the country’s newest province Artemisa enroute to the lush valleys of Pinar del Rio, this village is nestled in the UNESCO-designated Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. About an hour west from the capital, tourism is a staple for these 1,000 residents who live among 19th century French coffee plantations high in the sierras. That’s thanks to a fabulous Spanish hacienda, the Hotel Moka las Terrazas (http://www.hotelmoka-lasterrazas.com/).

I discovered the hotel was the seed to the self-sustaining project. The Hotel Moka and Las Terrazas community work together to promote nature tourism. “All the proceeds go back to the project,” says Fernando Pareles Pupo, the director general of Las Terrazes via a translator.

Clients can canoe, hike, cycle, horseback and embark on a new zipline canopy tour zipping over the forested terraces as they immerse themselves in the daily village life.

Your clients who love to give back and enjoy eco activities will certainly find this place a nice fit. The newly renovated 60 room hotel was a former coffee plantation that wraps around a sea of royal palms and stunning red mahogany trees. The trees are a theme. They intermingle with the buildings, jutting through the lobby and the long white corridors. Guests get fabulous sierra views and some of the best coffee in the region. For 1.50 CUC you get a great espresso at Cafe de Maria.

Day Trippin’: Soroa

After visiting Soroa Falls in Cuba’s new province of Artemisa it was time to lay back at a Sinatra-looking resort, the 49-room Hotel Villa Horizontes Soroa with its whimsy cottages.

I had no idea Cubans built such a fine building in the sixties. A cheerful palette of colours, the cottages encircle a bold pool with a pedestrian bridge. The setting is perfect for a cover fashion shoot. Clients can hunker down for a couple of days easy.

Soroa often dubbed Cuba’s Rainbow is also big on orchids. I delved into Orquideario a fascinating orchid garden that trailed up the hilltop. Even the entrance is orchid laden so those who might be mobility challenged can still spend hours as I did at the first building.

Video: http://tinyurl.com/oka8baf

Post Note:

If next year’s FITCuba is anything like this year’s surprises, I’m there. Judging by the next setting it looks like another Cuban fantasy will come to life. FITCuba 2015 is to run May 5-7 in Cayo Coco at the Jardines del Rey. The guest nation will be Italy and expect a huge push on marine activities.

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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