Havana Dream

With its white sandy beaches, rolling hills and fragrant cigars and rum, what's not to love about Cuba? Caribbean's largest destination is the appealing first location for the new Dhawa brand.

The sun glints off the 1950s chrome fins of the bouncing bubblegum pink Cadillac as it bumps along Havana’s seaside promenade. Salsa music pumps out of the radio and drifts up into the salty air lingering enticingly against an architectural score of sundae-hued columns, stone curlicues, and crested windows. This magnificent architectural facade, a jumbled multicoloured homage to neo-classical, art nouveau, art deco and modernist buildings, wraps eight kilometres along the Atlantic sea road, the Malecón, where the wind whips up the waves on breezy days and sprays the classic American cars and passing locals with a salty net n the late afternoon, as I amble under the arches, I spy Habaneros heading for the seawall, known locally as ‘the gran sofa’. It’s where the Cuban capital’s residents — young and old — come to lie down, love, laugh, drink rum, gossip and dream.

Cubans have been dreaming a lot this last year. After more than 50 years of political stalemate, US President Obama and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro agreed to a thaw, ushering in a period of normalisation of the relationship between these two neighbours on either side of the Florida straits. The former foes have struck a new deal and Cuba is on the verge of change. Raúl Castro kickstarted the sickly Cuban economy in late 2010 and permitted greater private enterprise within Cuba’s socialist paradigm. This new lease of life has transformed the dining, shopping and the accommodation experience, in particular.

When I first visited Cuba in the late 1990s, Cuba was a culinary backwater; there was scarcely a vegetable in sight. Fast forward to 2015 and private restaurants (known as paladares) are flourishing in many cities, popular beach resorts and nature havens. Inside the 1914 home of chef Carlos Cristóbal Márquez Valdés, who has worked in kitchens around the world, the walls are adorned with gorgeous art nouveau tiles, old album sleeves and black and white photos. Diners at his Paladar San Cristóbal sit down to tuck into steak, grilled snapper, ceviche, plump salads, a banana liqueur tipple and a cigar for every diner.

 

Meals like this in private restaurants are worlds away from the Cuba of yesteryear. Just a couple of blocks north in Centro Habana, Paladar La Guarida), has opened a new rooftop bar where punters sip minty mojitos and sit back inside a giant ornate picture frame while what little electricity there is in this residential district of Havana illuminates the rooftops. The ornate picture frame sofa is the start of an innovative design scene. In 2015, Cuba’s very first design store, Clandestina, opened in Old Havana joining a store that opened four years ago, Piscolabis, that is known for its stylish products made from recycled goods. In summer 2016, a concept store will open on the Malecón.

Most visitors to Cuba see it as freeze-framed: trapped in amber and stuck 50 years in the past. It’s more complicated than first appearances belie, and even second, third and fourth. Nothing in Cuba is what it seems. Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution is still sold to the Cubans, peddled through TV programmes, propaganda messages on billboards, international socialism and through a diet of rationed food, free healthcare and education. But Cuba is so much more than its political system and a journey through the country is the only sure way to learn about its culture, rich percussive music, Afro-Cuban religions, the legacy of its sugar wealth, its rum cocktails, beautiful verdant landscapes, chocolate, coffee and artisanal cigars and its star attraction: the gregarious and witty locals.

 

Enjoy sugar-white sands, aquamarine seas and a laidback vibe; a way of life that's truly Caribbean