26 JUN 2019: Five hundred years. I’ve been to many CubaFit conferences, including the one in 2016, when the first American Cruise ship arrived in Havana Harbour. The city was thrilled, and when we wandered the streets, locals would stop and ask us if we were Americans. Back again in Havana this year with all the turmoil over the new laws coming from the US, I wondered what the atmosphere would be like, and I suspect your clients will wonder as well. No need to wonder

It was the same welcome I’ve always received. I suspect Cubans are so used to problems they just carry on. And if we want to support Cuba, the best way to do this is to plan a holiday this year in this lovely destination.

And while in Cuba, Havana is a must see and experience.

Sun worshippers who leave the beaches to visit sensual Havana will find it easy to imagine themselves back in the 1950’s. Antique American cars and nightclubs abound, reminders of the days when Havana was a Caribbean Las Vegas, a sexy playground for rich tourists with much US Mob money and involvement.

The down-at-the-heels streets of the colonial core, La Havana Vieja might well be the most charming square mile in the Caribbean. It’s a UNESCO heritage site and you can walk for hours along cobblestone streets lined with grand baroque buildings that have changed little since the 17th and 18th centuries. But what has changed is that many of them have been restored since the first time I was there, years ago.

There are marvelous squares and piazzas. Plaza de Armas is the oldest. It’s been carefully restored, the first one restored in fact. Take a lazy stroll down the Malecon, it is simply magic especially when the pastel colours of the buildings are accentuated. Explore the wonderful piazzas and let the carnival flavor of old Havana seep in through your pores.

This is a city that moves to the sound of music as musicians play in the streets, nightclubs, cabarets, discos, and of course the concert halls.

Life in Havana for locals may be dull in some ways but that doesn’t apply to salsa and jazz or the famous must-see Cuban floorshow at the famous Tropicana Club.

There are countless museums and historic sites within easy walking distance. El Morro Castle and La Cabana fortress, which guard the Havana Harbour are fun by day and even more fun at night when torches are lit and Cuban soldiers dressed in 18th century uniforms march the ramparts to fire one of the old cannons. Locals set their watches to the 9pm cannon shot.

Even the cemetery is worth a visit. If you hire a guide, he’ll show you the tomb of Hemingway’s bartender who Papa made famous for inventing the daquiri. For that matter, there are tours that follow Hemingway’s footsteps. The Ambos Mundos Hotel in old Havana, and cocktails at Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita, are both a short walk from his room on the fifth floor of the hotel, and there’s Finca La Vigia on Havana’s outskirts, where he lived for 20 years.

Getting around Old Havana isn’t hard and it can also be fun. There are coco-taxis (egg-shaped yellow three-wheeled scooters for tourists), taxis, rickshaws, crowded buses, or you can rent a 57 Chevy convertible.

There is lots more shopping then there used to be. There are even actual stores. And yes, there is lots more than cigars and rum.

Your clients have many choices to stay, from small boutique hotels to elegant larger ones. Last month I stayed at the Parque Central and was most impressed. It has location, location, and location. My room cleaner was delightful and left it spotless every day. The front desk was fast, efficient and very friendly. The lobby had an amazing vibe, it made you want to sit down and stay. And people including me did. The best though, was the rooftop pool and bar. We could hardly wait to get there, every day.

At CubaFit this year were 2,000 participants from 40 countries, and nearly 200 journalists. A lot of the international journalists had been many times and were old pals. We old-timers raved about the reconstruction of the centre of the city. Those who hadn’t been before couldn’t get over what still needed to be done. And yes, there still is lots to be do.

Food, there was lots of it, and lots of bread, in spite of what your clients read on FB. Food as you all know is very personal, some things I liked some I didn’t. Yes, in some destinations they have shortages of some things, but Havana was fine.

These details are significant especially at a time when Washington's economic and commercial pressures against Havana are intensifying, and its attacks against tourism have become an important item on that agenda, after more than the 50 years of the blockade. On the other hand, during FITCuba the Canadian chain Blue Diamond signed two contracts with the Cuban group Gran Caribe for the administration of a hotel that will be located in Cayo Coco, and another one in the Varadero islands.

Something I found very interesting was how many of what I call the “big guns” showed up to support Cuba like the chairman of Iberostar, and numerous others.

We used to say… Go now before the Americans ruin it, this year we need to stress Go now to support this lovely destination.

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Sam Ion

The expert on All Inclusives, Sam delivers up-to-date info on alternate Wednesdays in her column Not Just All Inclusives.

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