Visit Cuba: what to do, where to stay and what to eat and drink

El Capitolio, Havana

Cuba’s distinctive smell of petrol fumes, cigar smoke and dust greets you almost as soon as you land at Havana’s Jose Marti airport.

Travelling into the city you get a glimpse of the island nation’s unique character, passing men sat on the kerbside staring at nothing in particular, and overtaking every conceivable type of vehicle from modern Hyundais to old motorbikes with sidecars, horses and carts and, of course, classic motors.

Havana itself is filthy and fabulous. Believe what you read in the papers; the city is undergoing a huge amount of building work, funded in part by foreign cash.

Many of the streets where kids play football also feature piles of rubble as new cables are laid beneath the road, or colonial apartment blocks are stripped to make way for new hotels.

On the streets of Havana

Outside of Havana, things are less hectic. The cobbled streets of Trinidad, a UNESCO world heritage site, are paved not so much with cobbles but small boulders, giving pedestrians what my guide described as a ‘Trinidad massage’.

In Viñales, the gateway to Cuba’s rural pursuits and the second most-visited destination in the country, farmers in hats on horseback give the place a distinctly Wild West feel.

I booked on G Adventures’ Cuban Rhythms tour for a seven day whirlwind trip round the western side of the island. Despite reservations about the tour’s ‘YOLO’ label (horrendous visions of chavvy 18 year olds in neon), the group was great, as was our guide Ray. So if you’re strapped for time, nervous about travelling solo or just fancy having someone else organise your trip, it’s a great idea.

The tour allowed for lots of flexibility, so with that in mind, here are some things worth checking out if you’re bound for Cuba.

The colourful streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The colourful streets of Trinidad

VISIT

A visit to Cuba would not be complete without trips to see where Cuba’s great exports come from. Coffee and tobacco plantations, sugar cane farms and rum factories are abound. These are best organised locally. Enquire in Viñales about tobacco, sugar and coffee, and for rum try Pinar del Rio.

Horse riding in Vinales

Vinales

Stopping in Trinidad is a must, and you can easily fill a few days wandering the cobbles snapping the colourful houses.

If you can bear to tear yourself away from that, there is good hiking to be had in the nearby national park at Sendero Huellas de la Historia. You can walk it in trainers and reward your efforts by a swim through the waterfall.

The waterfall at Huellas de la Historia

Viñales is also an excellent base for walking and horse riding through classic Cuban countryside.

Alternatively, just over an hour’s drive from Viñales is the stunning Cayo Jutias, a three kilometre stretch of white sand running alongside crystalline Caribbean waters. I stayed in the sea for two hours, until my fingers were prune-like and my forehead had turned a fetching shade of beetroot.

Cayo Jutias

I may have become slightly attached to Cayo Jutias

For history buffs, there are plenty of museums and historical sites to see.

For anyone interested in Che Guevara and Castro, head straight to the Museum of Revolution in Havana. This runs through the history of the Cuban revolution (it helps if you can read Spanish because not everything has been translated into English). You can see all sorts of artifacts (seriously, all sorts, from letters and diary entries to the plates people ate off and the seats people sat on). It’s probs worth taking everything, especially the stuff about America with a pinch of salt cos, you know, #propaganda.

Che Guevara memorial Santa Clara

If that’s not enough, head to Santa Clara, about three hours’ drive from Havana, where you can visit Che’s mausoleum and the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado where Che and his comrades derailed an armoured government train.

Molotov cocktails at Santa Clara

Mojitos are not the only kind of cocktails you’ll find in Cuba. Also: ‘bootles’.

 

If it’s pre-revolutionary stuff you’re after, then stop at Havana’s forts. Both of these involve passing beneath the Malecon.

By day, visit the commanding Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro. This was built between 1589 and 1630 to keep pirates out of Havana. Today it offers great views of the city and has strong Pirates of the Caribbean vibes. According to my guide book, you can pay 2 CUC to go up the lighthouse, but it was closed when we visited. Instead, we were beckoned up to the signalling box, where flags used to be raised to greet foreign ships.

Today the signal box keeper will chat to you about the fort, ships and Havana. While explaining that he’s a big fan of British music, from Led Zeppelin to Adele, he’ll point out the sites of the city (he was very keen to show us the American Embassy) and will pull out your national to pose with (as you can see, the British one was well used). If you do go, please tip him lots because he deserves it and I’d run out of cash by the time I visited!

Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro

By night, visit Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña for its nightly firing of the canon. There’s quite a lot to see here, from museum exhibits to souvenir stalls, so go a few hours before the canon ceremony which finishes around 9pm. Avoid the on-site pizzeria unless sweet, microwaved pizza is your thing.

The canon ceremony at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana

The canon ceremony at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana

STAY

Casa particulars are the place to stay in Cuba. They vary in comfort and style, but generally fall somewhere between a B&B and a family home stay (think school French exchange).

You can tell if somewhere has rooms to rent by the sign that looks a bit like a blue anchor displayed outside.

I stayed at two hotels in Havana, the first a sort of Soviet shack with warped walls, fluorescent lighting and the first floor seems to consist solely of rubble and a cement mixer. The other was the 5* hotel where our group met, which was way out of the hustle and bustle of town and felt a bit soulless. So, to conclude, stay in a casa.

Hostels are not commonplace in Cuba, but a fellow traveller stayed at Rolando’s Backpacker in Havana, which unfortunately was full when we finished our tour, but they put us in touch with the Concordia Hostel Backpackers which was comfortable (as long as you don’t mind cold showers) and cheap at 10 CUC a night.

EAT

Cuba’s cuisine does not have a great reputation. Granted, you’ll have to plan ahead if you want a truly spectacular meal, but in general the food isn’t bad. Breakfast at the casa particulars generally featured eggs in some form and plates of papaya, pineapple and guava. The Cuban coffee was not quite what I’d dreamed of, and it was made more weird by the fact it was served with unpasteurised milk which glistened on the top like oil.

Lunch, unless you carefully plan otherwise, will be a toasted cheese and ham sandwich. Don’t fight it.

Since Raul Castro assumed power, private restaurants called paladars have popped up.

Two stood out for me.

In Havana, Somos Cuba is a tiny restaurant in an apartment offering a good set menu for 15 CUC. Order the pork ribs. If you need the loo, be aware this involves passing through the proprietors’ bedroom, and that the loo itself doesn’t flush without the aid of buckets.

Somos Cuba paladar, Havana

Somos Cuba paladar

In Trinidad, head to La Ceiba, and sit on the decking beneath the boughs of… you guessed it, a giant ceiba tree. Order the chicken in honey and lemon sauce and snack on the fried banana crisps.

DRINK

While we’re talking about La Ceiba, it’s a great place to try Trinidad’s special drink, canchánchara. A bit like a cold hot toddy, it consists of ice, lemon, honey, water and ‘aguardiente’, which my menu decoder tells me means sugar cane alcohol (I thought that’s what rum was. Still confused.) Anyway, it comes in a special clay pot; stir it well to avoid slurping up a mouthful of honey and enjoy.

Canchanchara ingredients Trinidad

I also feel like I should talk about mojitos. I travelled to Cuba thinking I didn’t like mojitos because the ones served in England taste of minty melted ice. The ones in Cuba, however, are delicious. Unlike its pathetic British cousin, the Cuban mojito  consists of a lot of rum (sometimes half a glass), varying levels of sugar, an ice cube or two, some mint and water. They are excellent. Drink lots.

If you are the going out type (I’m not but I went anyway and am glad I did), visit Disco Ayala, a club in a cave. It sounds dingy, but it needs to be seen to be believed. Lonely Planet says it’s a tacky cabaret with an indigenous theme but I didn’t notice any of that.

On the climb up the hill to the club, entrepreneurial Cubans have set up cocktails stands where you can buy mojitos (and other drinks) for 1 CUC. That’s about 70 pence! It would be rude not to have several.

Cocktail street vendor, Trinidad, Cuba

Other drinks worth slurping include the Cuba Libre (made with Cuban cola brand Tukola), Pina Coladas (so good I want them for breakfast) and daiquiris.

Lots of people will tell you to visit La Floridita in Havana, supposedly Ernest Hemingway’s favourite daiquiri sport. However, the place is crawling with Canadian pensioners and the classic cocktail costs 6 CUC, well above the average of 3-4 CUC. If you’re really keen to drink like Hemingway, there is a facsimile of La Floridita in Trinidad where the good stuff costs just 3 CUC a glass.

El Dandy, Havana

Although the coffee at most breakfast tables was nothing to write home about, my Italian travel companions scouted out cappuccinos in Havana at El Dandy. They still used Cuban coffee beans, so it doesn’t count as cheating. This place is also good for European-style breakfasts and lunches. Try the bruschetta, but expect it to be garlicky!

So if you’re on the fence about travelling to Cuba, perhaps because it’s expensive to get there, or you can’t persuade anyone to come with, just go. It’s a fascinating place, unlike anywhere else, with so much to see and do. The people are friendly, the drinks are excellent and the Americans are coming, so book your flight asap.

Classic cars in Havana

An idiot’s guide to making sloe gin

Baskets of sloe berries

Foraging is one of those things that lots of us want to do but don’t.

The excuses are numerous: we live in the city, we don’t have time, and, crucially, we’re scared of poisoning ourselves.

Among the useless stuff we were taught at school, like Latin and the reproductive cycle of frogs, my geography teacher, accompanied by a couple of his more sane colleagues, took it upon himself to teach a group of silly school girls from west London how to find food in the wild.

I’d love to say that that one afternoon in autumnal Gloucestershire seven years ago turned me into an expert hunter-gatherer, but it wouldn’t be true.

However when I stumbled across a hedge groaning with bunches of blue-tinged berries on a recent urban ramble, I knew what I had to do.

The sloe is the fruit of the blackthorn tree, a thorny bush that grows in British hedgerows, and makes a delicious infused gin.

Sloe berry

Once you’ve worked out what a sloe berry looks like, they’re very easy to spot. In fact, you won’t be able to walk past a thicket without having a look. They look a bit like blueberries, but for gods sake don’t eat them because, as one comment I read said, “they taste like your soul’s been sucked inside out”.

Importantly, you do not have to live in some rural idyll to find sloes. The clumps I came across were on council-owned land running alongside the A40 in London suburbia.

So grab a friend and a couple of baskets, and head outside. You might also want to take some gardening gloves to avoid being speared by the aforementioned blackthorn, but where’s the fun in that?

Picking sloe berries

The number of berries you pick is up to you. Following John Wright’s loose guide, I aimed to pick a kilo of berries, or enough for two litres of sloe gin.

I may have miscalculated. By about a kilo.

Picking sloe berries

£42’s worth of Sainsburys Basics gin later, I have produced three litres of what will eventually be sloe gin. I still have enough berries in the freezer for another two litres, but they can wait for another time.

Here is how you can do the same:

Firstly, you will need to gather your sloes. We used baskets because they look prettier and are more rewarding to fill than your average 5p carrier bag.

Once you get home, leave the berries to soak in water for 10 minutes or so. This will allow any maggots and wasp larvae lurking within to creep out and float to the top.

You will then need to freeze your berries. Various websites, blogs and books will tell you to prick your berries. Don’t bother: you will spend enough time picking the fruit and then mixing the sodding drink without wasting more time (and blood) spearing berries with pins or forks or whatever else.

Shove your berries in a freezer bag and whack them in the freezer for 24 hours, or longer if necessary.

Whilst your berries are freezing, you can gather your other ingredients and equipment.

Basket of sloe berries

In addition to the sloes, you will need jars/bottles, sugar, and GIN. Do not let the Sipsmith recipe that ranks highly on Google fool you into thinking you should use posh gin. They would say that, wouldn’t they? Even Sainsbury’s Basics is £10.50 for 70cl, so just buy what you can afford.

Bear volume in mind when choosing your receptacles (I told you this was an idiot’s guide). Do not assume that to make a litre of sloe gin that a litre bottle is big enough. It isn’t. I’d allow 50% more room than you think you’ll need (e.g. a 3l jar to make 2l of gin) because you’ve got to cram a load of sugar and berries in there too.

Sugar funnel

Kilner jars are good, but outrageously expensive. You could try buying them from TK Maxx but all the ones I saw had had their lids nicked. I think I’ll reuse the empty gin bottles when it comes to rebottling in the winter.

This is my first year making sloe gin, so take this advice with a pinch of salt/slug of gin.

To make one litre of sloe gin:

  1. Sloe ginDefrost your sloes
  2. Pour 500g of sloes into a 2l jar/bottle
  3. Add 250g of sugar (or less. Some recipes say much less. I have a sweet tooth so I’m sticking with this).
  4. Add a litre of gin (take care not to get it in the cuts sustained from picking the berries because they will sting like Satan).
  5. Close jar. Shake it like a polaroid picture (over a sink, in case of leakage)
  6. Store jars in a dark cupboard (some say the airing cupboard, but there’s a risk all your clothes could all end up reeking of booze).
  7. Shake jar every day for a week. Then shake once a week for the next few months.
  8. Drinkable after 8-10 weeks (i.e. CHRISTMAS), but better if left longer. At this point, you can remove the berries (you could use them to make chocolates, sloe sherry or slider) and rebottle and distribute among friends.
  9. DRINK, in moderation of course.
  10. Discover that second bottle at the back of the cupboard two years later and rejoice.

Time will tell how drinkable this stuff is, but with gin, you can’t really go wrong. If, like me, you think tonic water was made by the devil, try it with pressed apple juice.

Sloe berries

Wahey

Broadstairs Folk Week

Beach huts at Broadstairs

You cannot beat a good day at the seaside. Exploring rock pools, paddling in the sea and wolfing down fish and chips in the rare British sunshine is a treat often overlooked in favour of cheap breaks to reliably hot destinations abroad.

A new survey by the National Trust and YouGov found that trips to the coast had declined by 20% in the last 10 years, while half of the nation haven’t been to the seaside in the last year.

Those questioned in the survey said that they were too busy to get down to the coast when the weather was nice, that it was too expensive or that transport links were poor. This, my friends, is rubbish, as I discovered this weekend.

Broadstairs is a small seaside town on the Kent coast, and less than two hours away from London on the fast train from St Pancras. Each year it hosts Broadstairs Folk Week, bringing together all manner of morris dancers, fiddle players and singers.

Miraculously the opening weekend of this year’s festival coincided with some of the best weather we’ve seen in weeks: strong sunshine with a warm breeze, hot but not sticky.

We arrived at lunchtime on Sunday, following the crowd of day-trippers from the station towards the seafront, music wafting from the pubs along the street.

Seaside toys at Broadstairs

Something about the bright sunshine and the green sea meant the photos I took came out tinged with blue, like a postcard from the 1970s. When we passed a video rental shop that was apparently still trading, I wondered if we’d travelled backwards in time.

Broadstairs postcard

Stick a horrible font on top of a photo and voila! Wish you were here?

If you take your folk music seriously, you can book tickets to see big performers in the evening (we missed Kate Rusby’s sold out performance the night before), but we were happy ducking into pubs when we heard something we liked, and wandering past troupes of dancers and impromptu sessions on the prom and joining in with sea shanties on the jetty.

Broadstairs bandstand in Folk Week

Sea shanties at Broadstairs Folk Week

Broadstairs Folk Week session on the prom

morris-dancers-at-broadstairs-folk-week

It was great to see so many people out in the sun and enjoying a nice slice of British culture, but I was slightly taken aback to see a few controversial black-painted faces among the participants. It’s a touchy subject. The origins behind ‘blacking up’ are unclear, and with some believing it is an old method of disguise, in the same way as some modern protesters wear balaclavas, while others argue that it is the result of the minstrel craze of the nineteenth century, where people would paint their faces to mimic black people.

Either way, I found it disconcerting to see people plastered with black paint, particularly in an area that had recently come close to voting in the loathsome Nigel Farage as MP. While it’s important to uphold traditions, they should adapt as our culture does, and I, for one, think it’s time the black face paint was retired to the history books.

Blackface at Broadstairs Folk Week

Dad was keen that I visit The Chapel as soon as possible as he thought I might be a fan. He wasn’t wrong. Housed in -you guessed it- a chapel, dating from 1601, The Chapel is now an ale house-cum-bookshop, also selling coffee, pastries and local grub, and regularly plays host to music and quiz nights.

Before I’d even crossed the threshold, I was ready to move in. Most of the walls are lined with books for you to peruse, and possibly buy, as you drink your way through a huge range of ales, ciders and perries.

We arrived as a band of Morris dancers were winding up, only for them to be replaced by a duo doing bluesy Joni Mitchell covers. For once, Dad’s outfit seemed almost normal amid the ribboned folkies with their top hats and jingling socks.

The Chapel at Broadstairs

Enjoying folk with the folks

Not everyone was there for the music. Viking Bay was packed full of chubby Englishmen, with their rolls of belly fat caught somewhere between milky white and lobster red, sunbathing teenagers and frolicking children.

Kids on the beach at Broadstairs

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, I headed down to the quieter Stone Bay, carefully studying what remained of the rock pools for creatures from the deep. While the giant squid stayed away, there were still plenty of limpets and dead crabs to find hidden among the seaweed.

Rockpools at Broadstairs

Crab at Broadstairs

Broadstairs seagulls

It was with heavy heart that we boarded the train back to London that evening, leaving the sun, the sea and the songs behind us.

Broadstairs Folk Week 2015 poster

While the beautiful weather may have gone, Broadstairs Folk Week continues until Friday 14th August.

The town suffers from the occasional power cut, so make sure to take cash with you and prepare to queue for your fish and chips.

Have you been exploring the British Isles this summer? Got any tips for days out from London? Do you think it’s time people stopped painting their faces black in the name of ‘tradition’?

Rolling in the Chilterns

The Chilterns are great. Full of good pubs, bluebell woods and rich in wildlife, they’re brilliant for walking.

But sometimes, let’s face it, you’ve just got to roll with it!

We squeezed in a bit of walking too… starting at The Royal Standard of England, we built up an appetite taking the long pub walk which starts in the car park.

Forty Green pub walkLeanne was very happy that the sun came out.

Taking the car out can mean you have greater flexibility about where you go to walk, but the down side is that you have to return to where it’s parked at some point.

We spent lunch pouring over the map, wondering where to go next, before stuffing the map back in my bag and deciding to drive until we saw somewhere good to stop.

We stopped at Pulpit Hill, where we pulled up alongside two D of E award teachers who were waiting for a pack of young explorers to turn up.

After climbing up the steep track towards the hill fort, we emerged from the woods to be greeted with a brilliant view.

Pulpit Hill

The lady who took this pic mentioned that there was a big grassy mound a bit further along the track, and you know what happened next.

Rolling gif

We colonised the mound, doing a bit of wildlife spotting while we were there.

The lesser-spotted Leanne

The lesser-spotted Leanne

Bug

Buckinghamshire daisies

After we’d recovered from our dizziness, we carried on our walk to The Plough.

I couldn’t resist the call of the tyre swing!

Plough at CadsdenThen it was back into the woods to begin the journey home.

Buckinghamshire woods

Buckinghamshire woods

Tangled up in bluebells

Perivale WoodI have found paradise.. and it’s in Perivale.

Nestled between the A40 and the Grand Union Canal in west London is Perivale Wood.

At this time of year the ancient woodland is carpeted with a sea of bluebells.

Bluebells in Perivale Wood

And once a year, the nice people from the Selbourne Society who look after the wood open it to the general public to share the magnificent sight.

Perivale Wood open day 2015

Naturally, I grabbed my camera and went down there.

In the bluebell wood

A blur of blue covers a large portion of the 18 acres of woodland, intermittently interspersed with a few heads of pink or white blooms.

Bluebells at Perivale Wood

It’s a shame you can’t capture smells. Here, the scent is of earth and plants and life. It’s easy to believe that a green and white satellite view of our planet shows not land and sea, but trees and bluebells.

Dad in Perivale Wood

Papa S auditioning for Countryfile

We made our way around the trail, passing bug hotels, hides, tree houses and nettle plantations, hearing the occasional tinkle of a young morris dancer’s bells as he ran through the tree cover.

Path into the bluebell wood

When I die, sprinkle my ashes among the bluebells because if there is a heaven, it’s here.

Bluebells in Perivale Wood

Have you seen any spectacular bluebell displays this year? Where? Tell me everything you know!

A rainy day road trip to Maldon

Rain: four letters that conjure up a thousand images.

Depending on your mood, it can mean jumping in puddles, looping arms under an umbrella or having a well-earned duvet day. Sometimes it just suggests misery, cold and thwarted plans.

Personally, I love the rain. Despite the bad press, British weather is mild and the main problem with a bit of precipitation is that your hair might get wet and go frizzin’ crazy.

While it might mean you have to postpone your sunbathing session or sports day (a lucky escape), changing your plans to accommodate a little drizzle is no bad thing.

With that in mind, I headed to Maldon in Essex.

Maldon town and boat

Planted on the banks of the Blackwater Estuary, Maldon isn’t the kind of Essex you might be familiar with if your knowledge is based on TOWIE and trips to Stansted.

In fact, this ancient estuary town is home to old fishermen’s cottages, striking Thames barges and sea salt.

Thames barges at Maldon

Listening to the screeches of gulls and the tapping of rope against mast, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at the seaside.

Although the salty air leaves you stickier than a 99 on a hot day, there’s no sand here. Instead, the banks are lined with famous Maldon mud. Every year hundreds of dirty daredevils head out to this corner of East Anglia for the renowned Maldon Mud Race through the sticky grey sod. If you fancy having a go yourself, sign up quick for this year’s race on the 26th April.

Curlew at Maldon

Avoiding the ooze, I dragged Papa S along Promenade Park before taking refuge in The Queen’s Head as the rain lashed down around us.

After a cracking ham, egg and chips, we battled through the wind and rain to drive round to Heybridge Basin, making a slight detour to visit Dad’s old stomping ground from the 1970s (now referred to as The Time Before Supermarkets).

Although the rain had relented slightly by the time be reached the Basin, the wind was still whistling, so we made a beeline for the tea rooms, scoffing their last scones of the day.

Heybridge Basin Tea Rooms

Sticky with jam and sea salt, we followed the reflections of tail lights all the way back into London, where I made a really twee and very wobbly little video to remember the day by:

What are your top rainy day activities?