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Soaking up the luxury in Cuba

Cayo Blanco. Photos: Stuart Abraham

Cayo Blanco. Photos: Stuart Abraham

It was a difficult choice. It always is when you are lying on your stomach. Do you want the four hands or just two? The ‘Exotic Ceylan’ or the ‘Placid Paradise’?

But when in Cuba and horizontal on your cama lounger in your own private, open-air palapa and very exclusive palm leaf thatched cabana beside the Caribbean, you must do what the Cubans would do.

And opt for the 50-minute 108 CUC (£77) revitalising rum massage.

You have to soak up the rum in Cuba. Especially in the luxury resort of Varadero.

Varadero’s Golf Club.Varadero’s Golf Club.

I can smell a wellness centre a mile away. I can detect an incoming holistic health adviser a kilometre off. It’s the ayurvedic herbs that give them away. Travel has made me acutely sensitive to a surprise attack by a serial physiotherapist. They’re everywhere, creeping up on you wherever you go.

The alarm bells ring. In the form of squeaky plimsolls. I turn and see the bouncy walk. The face aglow with good will and marine algae.

Then the big, blinding, radiantly healthy ‘Special K With Purple Berries’ smile.

Of someone whose life is one long, blissful early morning bowel movement. I see the glint and the question in their eyes.

“Can I book you in for a complimentary colonic irrigation?”

There are some things in hotels that I try to never use. Like fire hoses and gyms. I had a near-death experience just by walking past an aerobics class. I was asphyxiated by toxic fumes caused by a large build-up of star jumps and soya beans.

On holiday at a hotel which boasted a resident nutritionist, I came back from the pool to find my wife frothing at the mouth. I thought it was a fit but she had just taken more than her recommended dose of yeast tablets.

Me and well-being therefore have history. I have a problem with health spas. I associate them with not very relaxing activities like tripping over a lot in flip-flops.

And incredibly toothy people with abnormally nice cuticles who pedal pilates and force you into putting your leg foolishly higher than it’s ever gone for 30 years and then tell you – for the optimal results – to keep it at that obscenely oblique angle for the next 10.

For me, spas invoke certain stereotypes. I connect them with white-coated strangers obsessed with your passageways. And pseudo-medical personnel remarkably well informed on the subject of juicing and believe in Turnip Smoothies.

If someone suggests a pedicure I look at them as if they are wearing a durian face-pack.

But I love massages and the best I’ve ever had was in Cuba. In the Yhi Spa, which is part of the five-star Paradasis Princesa del Mar Resort. The one at the Melia Las Americas wasn’t bad either.

Luxury is coming slowly to Cuba. The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski has just opened in Vieja (Old) Havana, claiming to be the country’s ‘first true luxury hotel’ offering ‘re-defined luxury hospitality’.

An old 1894-1917 shopping arcade near the Capitol building, it boasts the rooftop Bella Habana swimming pool, the Confluencias Restaurant and Spa Albear By Resense.

For a man who was so anti-elitist and against social exclusion, Fidel may not agree with post-revolutionary Cuban luxury. I am not sure what ‘El Barbudo’ (the Bearded One) would have made of lavish and targeted facial experiences, the £110 massages and the pedicure.

There are many quality hotels in Santa Maria. And more on the way throughout the country. You can now rent luxury villas and private homes from InCloud9, Cuba’s first bespoke luxury travel agency. It is run by a lady from Co. Cork.

You can even eat well now.

It has been said and still is sometimes that Cuba has three problems – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But a gastro revolution of sorts is under way in the largest island in the Caribbean. You can now get sushi and even Scandinavian in Havana. As well as traditional pulled pork sandwiches with bonaito (sweet potato) crips. Cuisine is not so dire as it so notoriously was for a long time.

Paladares (private restaurants) were introduced in the 1990s to enable the people to profit from a burgeoning tourist market. Raul Castro’s reforms relaxed laws on private enterprise. In the harbourside alley Nao Restaurant, you can have malanga or elephant ear balls (a mashed yellow root vegetable), pimientos de padron, yucca chips, suckling pig and buy a Hemingway Did Drink Here T-shirt.

On the menu at the beautifully renovated mansion,  Starbien, there’s carpaccio and chicken sesame shaslik. Good Cuban restaurants which would be good anywhere include Cha Cha Cha, Otea Mahera, Nazdeorie, La Guaerida and El Del Frente (The One In Front). You must  find its rooftop terrace and order the lobster tacos. Just as you have to have a rum massage and a round of golf and a meal at Xanadu.

Not Citizen Kane’s legendary 49,000-acre Xanadu on its own private mountain ‘in the deserts of the Gulf Coast’.  “The costliest monument a man has built to himself. Cost: no man can say.”

A gastro revolution of sorts is under way in the largest island in the Caribbean. You can now get sushi and even Scandinavian in Havana

Or Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California which inspired it.

But Ireene DuPont’s ‘stately pleasure dome’ on the Gulf of Mexico in Varadero.

The 1927 four-storey, eight-bedroom beach front  Xanadu Mansion on the San Bernardino bluff was built by French-American chemical magnate, Irenee DuPont de Nemours.  He retired to Cuba, buying himself 180 hectares of the Hicacos Peninsula in the municipality of Cardenas at four cents per square metre. This included eight kilometres of beach.

Melia lasAmericas, Varadero.Melia lasAmericas, Varadero.

DuPont installed the largest privately-owned organ in all of Latin America. It called guests to dinner. Dark hardwoods were brought from Santiago de Cuba for Xanadu’s ceilings, stair rails and columns. Floors and bathrooms were done in Cuban, Italian and Spanish marble.

Xanadu cost over a million dollars to build. The gardens were planted with coconut, banana, avocado and papaya trees. Parrots and cockatoos were imported to make the Cuban version of Xanadu more tropically enchanting. To add to ‘the privileged location and exclusive atmosphere’.

And its ‘paradisiacal location’.

Xanadu has always stood for luxury. Pre- and post-Revolution.

At £200 a night half board you can stay in the six second-floor rooms – Califa, Oasis, Irenee, Samarkanda, Marco Polo and Kubla Khan. And enjoy the view of the sea and scaffolding. And use the dark, mahogany-panelled lounge and grandish staircase. On the terrace you can listen to the resident saxophonist while sipping your mojito or Cuba Libre sundowner.  Or drink a tacitas demi-demi-tasse of Cuban bean coffee in the lobby listening to Guillermo play modern melodies on his period Chaica 19 piano.

Xanadu’s chef Eduardo Lima Martin trained in Havana’s Sevilla Hotel and Peru. He won Cuba’s prestigious Pia Dorada Trophy and is considered one of the country’s leading chefs. His specialities include £32 Lobster Dupont-style (Warm Caribbean lobster salad with soja) and Canadian/Uruguyuan Chateaubriand (£27). His signature desserts are chocolate fondant and apple pie.

Xanadu has its own extensive cigar menu. A Cohiba Betika 54 costs £32. You have to smoke it outside on one of the two putting greens.

No handicap certificate is required on Varadero’s golf course, Cuba’s only 18-holer. A round costs £70. The  scenic five par five,  five par three, eight par 72 1998 course with shoreline holes and sea water lagoons was designed by Canadian Les Furber , protégé  of Robert Trent Jones Snr. A green fee with buggy and club at Varadero costs what a Cuban earns in three months. But golf is spearheading the country’s tourism drive.

Golf was once banned by Fidel Castro. He considered it elitist. A luxury hobby and symbol of capitalist decadence.  More golf courses and spa resorts are planned.

Varadero (dry dock) is the place for Cuban luxury and history.

And gourmet apple pie, cuticle renovation, hydrothermal circuits, ‘silhouette management’ and ‘exclusive services for the perfection of the body’.

The spa in Varaderos must be the only one in the world which you leave reeking of chocolate, molasses, sweet tobacco and seven-year-old 40 per cent Havana Club Rum.

I am not sure about the ‘Scottish showers’, the sudden and very explosive alternation of hot and cold water.

It is meant to be good for your circulatory system. And billed as ‘a very relaxing event’.

Which it is. If you are a male. And the water is very cold.

Kempinski Hotel, Havana.Kempinski Hotel, Havana.

Factbox

■ The Holiday Place offers a seven-night holiday, staying at Melia las Americas on an all-inclusive basis, from £1,299 per person, saving up to £400, based on two adults sharing a Classic Room. Includes flights from Malta, transfers and green fees. To book call 020 7644 1770 or visit:
- http://holidayplace.co.uk.
- www.kempinski.com/CubaLaHavana
- www.melia.com/Paradisius/Varadero

■ Virgin Atlantic flies twice a week from London Gatwick to Havana and is offering return fares from £479 per person. For more information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770. This fare is available for selected departures during 2017 and 2018.

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