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I’m confused!  Have I unwittingly been part of a Richard Branson experiment and his Virgin plane has transported me back 60 years?  How could I be standing close to all these classic American cars of a bygone age, looking like they’ve just glided out of the showroom?  At the same time I saw a matt/faded paint clunker, seemingly gasping its last breath, struggling past a horse and cart.  The vehicles are perhaps a metaphor for life in Cuba.  


Some things or places were pristine, having been lavished with care and no small amount of ingenuity considering the economic depravations of the last few decades.  Alongside we found decay, crumbling buildings, queues for staple items, but thoroughly charming and welcoming people in a place infused with intoxicating music.


Apart from the journey to Cienfuegos, we decided to pass on a road tour of Cuba in favour of letting Variety Cruises take the strain.  Unpacking once and cruising from place to place on Panorama (a 25 cabin luxury yacht) seemed like the way to go.  On arrival we were warmly greeted, briefed and shown to our cabin.  On a ship of this size our cabin was compact but with ample room for the little time we would spend in there. Cleverly designed use of space included AirCon, Fridge, TV, safe, a comfortable double bed and, an essential for me, a luxuriously powerful shower.


Our walking tour of Cienfuegos revealed a strong French influence, blended with Caribbean overtones, giving it a unique architectural and cultural feel.  We started at the Parque Jose Marti and our guide brought my attention to the amazing bronze statues positioned on the marble benches.  As I moved in for a photo, it moved!  Confession time, I was totally caught out by a brilliant statue impersonator.  There are many impressive buildings around the square but my favourite was the Tomas Terry Theatre.  This 950 seat auditorium is truly a step back in time.  We finished our tour as the sun set along the picturesque bay and where locals were in the sea shrimp fishing.  We returned to see Panorama’s sleek silhouette set against the last colours of the Cuban sky and enjoyed a cheery welcome back, a cold towel and fruit juice.  I’d worked up a healthy appetite which did justice to the marvellous five course meal that was served for dinner.  Gentle coloured woods grace a very comfortable and soothing dining/lounge area, all backed up with impeccable and attentive service.


An overnight sailing brought us to Casilda for our trip into Trinidad.  Trinidad’s Spanish Colonial splendour was best seen by branching out from Plaza Mayor, the tranquil and attractive main square.  From the corner of the square you can see the tower belonging to the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis.  As well as being one of the most photographed points in Trinidad, it is also the view on the 25 Centavo coin.  Next we headed into Museo Historic Municipal where we drank in the well preserved remnants of the Cantero Mansion and the history that surrounded it.  Here we climbed to the top of the tower to get a bird’s eye view of not only the mansion but of Trinidad itself.  Both Cienfuegos and Trinidad seem remarkably untouched by the ravishes of time.


Its when the sails go up that the true beauty of Panorama is unveiled and relaxing on the loungers its time to take a little sun.  Perhaps its at sunset though that Panorama tenderly grips our hearts, as the sails are turned orange by the dipping fireball in the sky.


Next it was off to see Mary the Fat, well that’s how our next stop Maria La Gorda translates.  Guanahacabibes National Park provided a welcome look at the nature of the area, plus a slightly less welcome close encounter with an Alligator.  A relaxing BBQ on the beautiful white sand beach finished off our day before we sailed for Havana.


At Havana we were ideally docked opposite Plaza de San Francisco and we used the four plazas in Old Havana (with liberal wanderings to the side streets) as a basis for our discovery of Havana.  To stroll along the Malecon (coast Road) was also a delight but gave us another of Cuba’s many contrasts.  Where the beauty of the sea crashing over the ageing sea wall, is offset by washing hanging inside a building nearly derelict and shored up with rotting timbers.


Current restrictions for US citizens mean they can only legally travel to Cuba as part of an organised tour, which non US citizens are not allowed to join.  Thus the three Europeans on Panorama were treated to our own guide and driver on excursions.  Current negations to improve relations with the USA, however, may mean that Americans arrive in numbers very soon, so now is the ideal time to visit Cuba whilst its crumbling charm is still a McDonalds free zone.


To enjoy the comfort of your cabin, the lounge, bar and sun deck, stairs need to be negotiated, plus access to the Tender (required on two occasions) is via a short vertical ladder.  Cuba itself has many cobbled streets and few lifts or ramps to avoid steps.  Sadly, anyone with mobility issues may feel this isn’t the trip for them.  For us though, this was a brilliant way to be introduced to the sights and sounds of Cuba.



Steve Aldridge

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Sights and Sounds of CUBA

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