Visit Cuba, Habana Vieja and Cayo Santa Maria now before the tourists descend
Charming cobblestone streets in Habana Vieja, show-stopping sand and surf in Cayo Santa Maria… and the friendliest locals around: Visit Cuba now before the tourists descend
- The Caribbean island has been under Communist rule since the 1950s
- However, Cuba and the US have just re-established diplomatic relations
- But as it stands, spending time in Havana is still like stepping back in timeÃ?Â
08:29, 16 August 2015
14:42, 16 August 2015
I stepped off the plane and back into what felt like the mid-century. It's true what they say: it's as if time has stood still on the quaint island nation of Cuba.
Having been under Communist rule since the 1950s, and all but closed off from most of its more developed Western neighbours, Cuba has long been plagued by a poor human rights record and low wages for its citizens.
Still, the locals are as charming and friendly as they come, welcoming foreign tourists Ã¢Â?Â? long a hot spot for Canadians looking for all-inclusive week away Ã¢Â?Â? with open arms.
Having been under Communist rule since the 1950s, it's as though time has stood still in Cuba's colourful capital
Admittedly, I headed to Cuba not just to explore the winding cobblestone streets of Havana but also to attend the wedding of my childhood best friend some 175 miles away, near Santa Clara.
However, given that I had just travelled 10+ hours – from London to Havana, by way of Paris Ã¢Â?Â? I was eager to carve out at least a couple of days to explore the capital.
Forget glamping, try CRAMPING: Meet Gidget, the world's…
Passers-by stop tourist's car from crashing into the sea by…
A street food feast, takeaway picnic hampers and a spread…
Man, 20, escorted off plane by police after 'sexually…
Share this article
I grew up in Canada so weeklong trips to Cuba were the norm for as long as I could remember. With my family, I visited all-inclusive resorts everywhere from Varadero to Holguin between the ages of seven and 17. However, I'd never managed to find myself in Havana.
Unfortunately, due to scheduling, I was only able to spend one day in Cuba's colourful capital, but I packed as much into those 24 hours as humanly possible.
The four-star Hotel Raquel is housed in a stunning Baroque building in Havana's Old Jewish Quarter
Inside, the stained glass domed ceiling is a true centre piece, with all rooms facing onto an open-air solarium
The rooms are large, with stunning high ceilings, despite being stocked with rather basic furniture
After landing at the basic, rather primitive airport, I quickly found a taxi to take me to the picturesque Hotel Raquel in the city's Jewish Quarter.
A stunning example of Baroque architecture, the building itself dates back to 1908, when it was first built as a storage warehouse for textiles.
Today, its majestic marble columns and intricate stained-glass windows add an elegant touch to the property, where all rooms open to an open-air solarium, complete with domed ceiling.
But the real hidden gem is the hotel's rooftop terrace, which overlooks the entirety of Old Havana, including Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja.
A popular square for tourists to visit, Plaza de Armas is the city's oldest and full of plenty of restaurants
From the rooftop terrace at Hotel Raquel, there are breathtaking sights to behold of the crumbling city
Parque Central is located across from the Capitol building – and is one of the only places you can get WiFi
Since I was pressed for time, I only had the opportunity to experience the continental breakfast provided by the hotel, though the dinner menu's Jewish offerings were as tempting as they were unique for the area.
For a truly authentic Cuban dining experience, visitors should consider the many restaurants that are hidden in various apartment buildings throughout the city.
Porto Habana, for example, is an unassuming local joint located on the 11th floor of a residential building in the Old Town, boasting traditional cuisine and breathtaking Bay views.
And for those looking for a quick late-night bite following an evening at Havana's infamous 70s-style Tropicana nightclub, there are plenty of unassuming stands and walk-up windows offering everything from traditional Cubano sandwiches to churros.
But with the city's hard-to-navigate streets and non-existent WiFi service, I wish you luck attempting to find any of them again.
In Old Havana, the Plaza de la Catedral is home to a Baroque cathedral dating back to the 1770s, as well as an art museum and cafe
As well as old buildings, Plaza de Armas (left) is also home to a garden square, though no matter where you turn, the cobblestone streets and colourful buildings (right) provide the perfect snapshot
Plaza de la Revolucion is probably Havana's best known square and is where the Jose Marti Memorial can be found
Airbnb showcase stunning beauty of new holiday spot Cuba
I took the evening and following morning to explore the various squares dotted throughout the quarter, as well as the many shops and kiosks set up.
Though Plaza de la Revolucion may be one of the best known, it's located about a 15-minute drive from Old Havana itself, which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site.
No walking tour of the city is complete without taking in the National Capitol, which is styled after the Pantheon in Paris, and is the perfect place to snap a postcard-ready image Ã¢Â?Â? especially as colourful vintage cars drive past.
Plaza de la Catedral, the main tourist square of Plaza de Armas and La Cabana fortress, located on the east side of Havana Bay, are also must-see sights. And if you're a bit fuzzy on the history of any, you're almost guaranteed to stumble across a local eager to share all of his or her knowledge with you.
El Capitolio, which was once the seat of government in Cuba, is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences
La Cabana is an 18th century fortress and another must see, located on the eastern side of the harbour
After a stop in Havana, I headed east towards Santa Clara for my friend's wedding.
I had, foolishly, not booked a bus ticket ahead, assuming that Ã¢Â?Â? like Britain Ã¢Â?Â? there would be a regular coach service connecting all parts of the country. I was wrong.
Although I managed to find a bus route to Santa Clara, I arrived to find that there was quite literally no taxi service whatsoever.
Through many hand gestures and broken Spanish to English translations, I found a lovely local Ã¢Â?Â? a man called Andy Ã¢Â?Â? who was willing to drive me the additional hour and a half to the beachfront hotel where the wedding was to take place.
In Santa Clara, about 300km east of Havana, it's not uncommon to see a horse and wagon used as transportation
Communicating only via Google Translate on his phone Ã¢Â?Â? I, on the other hand, had not had mobile service in days Ã¢Â?Â? we somehow managed to find Playa Cayo Santa Maria and set up a return pick-up time three days later to head back to the Santa Clara coach station.
Though a potentially dangerous decision Ã¢Â?Â? yes, I am aware that travelling through a foreign country with a man I had never met and without cell phone service or any knowledge of the language at hand is not the wisest move Ã¢Â?Â? this entire trip was a reminder that sometimes you really do just have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
As it turned out, Andy wound up having a friend at the hotel I was staying at in Santa Maria. (And Yaneus, who worked in reception, even made us a special reservation-only dinner on our final night at the beach.)
After making the trek to Santa Clara, I travelled another two hours to the inlet of Cayo Santa Maria for the wedding of my childhood best friend (pictured)
A kind taxi driver drove MailOnline Travel's Katie (pictured right) from Santa Clara to the beachfront resort where the wedding took place. His friend who worked in reception then left us a sweet note (pictured left)
Playa Cayo Santa Maria is a favourite among European and Canadian tourists visiting all-inclusive resorts
It's unsurprising then from my experience, I have found that there's truly no need to pay for any sort of tour service when exploring the capital or its surrounding areas, though it's worth mentioning that hop-on, hop-off buses have been recently introduced in Havana.
This is simply the first example of what will surely be an Americanisation of the city, especially given Cuba's recent re-establishing of diplomatic relations with the United States.
While currently you'd be hard-pressed to find any sort of chain in Havana Ã¢Â?Â? or any where else in the country Ã¢Â?Â? that will undoubtedly change in coming months as the tourism that the country has so long relied on skyrockets further.
Cheapflights.co.uk Travel Expert Ben Rosier said: 'Cuba's efforts to appeal to the British tourist market certainly seem to be working; flight searches to Cuba from Cheapflights.co.uk have seen an impressive 29% increase year-on-year Ã¢Â?Â? and it's closing ground on other Caribbean spots, particularly the likes of Barbados and Jamaica.
'November to April is peak season and sun is pretty much guaranteed in January/ February; although as demand is higher you'll probably be paying more Ã¢Â?Â? so do make sure you compare prices. There are bargains to be picked up in 'shoulder season' but do opt for November onwards to avoid the worst of the wet season.'Ã?Â
My advice? Visit now before McDonald's (and the subsequent hordes of American tourists) realise just how special this city truly is.
TRAVEL FACTS: How to get to CubaÃ?Â
Katie flew Air France from London Heathrow to Paris CDG and then on to Havana's Jose Marti International Airport courtesy ofÃ?Â cheapflights.co.uk.Ã?Â
Share or comment on this article
MOST WATCHED NEWS VIDEOS
Dog's delightful reaction to learning she doesn't have…
The incredible FIVE hour rescue to free humpback whale
Unruly woman kicked off plane for refusing to put dog in…
Liz Jones captures Indian elephant's painful struggle
Footage of Courtney Stewart on bouncy castle with son
Kokkinakis is held back during verbal disagreement with…
Terrified woman films as speedy koala chases her down
The great pretender: Orion takes his Elvis act to the stage
Elvis lives? Orion the Man who would be King trailer
Heart wrenching moment turtle has straw pulled from his nose
Hacker reveals ease of accessing personal information
Anti-fascist campaigners surround suspected neo-Nazis
Sandwich wars! Visitors banned from eating packed lunches at…
Shocking moment woman is kicked-off plane screaming and…
The circle of life: From swirling buffalo to hippos cooling…
Coffee with a catch! Italian restaurant adds â?¬20 'service…
Make mine a double! Airport's biggest drinkers are GRANNIES…
What queues? How to follow in the footsteps of Kendall…
A Â£2,000-a-night presidential suite, rooms named for famous…
Children in charge! The London hotel package that lets kids…
It's all kicking off! Fearless riders compete in Britainâ??s…
Hidden paradise: Inside the stunning Portuguese islands with…
A look inside Richard Branson's newest but most understated…
Glories of secret Britain: Enjoy a pint while watching the…
MOST READ TRAVEL
Share what you think
Â View all
The comments below have been moderated in advance.
Â View all
The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.
We are no longer accepting comments on this article.