August 5, 2019
Sarah Read is our external affairs specialist who looks after all our air transport agreements, or bilaterals, which are treaties between nations that enable commercial airlines to fly. We found her stepping off a flight from Cuba and asked what she'd been up to.
Last year saw the first visit of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel to the United Kingdom. To mark the landmark occasion, a UK Cuban trade body known as The Cuba Initiative hosted an event at which the president suggested a re-launch to celebrate 25 years of the partnership, along with a trade mission to Cuba.
We worked closely with The Cuba Initiative following the announcement, in order that we’d be the airline of choice for delegates attending the mission. Virgin Atlantic flies twice a week from London to Havana so we were keen to welcome these high profile businesses onboard.
After mojitos at our pre-brief in Havana’s Melia Cohiba hotel, delegates headed off for an early night in preparation for the days ahead. The mission began with a flurry of excitement as it became clear the president would be attending, and a series of presentations, discussions, meetings and tours followed over the next few days. During the week, HBM Ambassador to Cuba hosted delegates and Cuban ministers at the British embassy residence in Vedado; a beautiful building although rivalled by many others in the neighbourhood. Most unexpected, and a standout highlight of the trip, was an invite to a reception held by President Díaz-Canel at the Palace of the Revolution, behind Revolution Plaza.
My first visit to Havana was back in 1996, my last in 2012, and once again I was fortunate enough to have some time to explore. While Havana is a great city to encounter on foot, with the encroaching June humidity, and having just seen Joanna Lumley filming by the Hotel Nacional, I opted to follow her lead and take a tour in a classic car.
Restored and running classic cars were certainly visible on my previous visits, but it was nothing like on the scale you see now. Today they are everywhere, no doubt to accommodate growing tourism, and the bonus is it makes determining your routing, duration and price totally negotiable. Lewis was my knowledgeable and accommodating driver, and was happy to stop for my ‘quick photo’ requests. It’s such a fantastic way to orientate yourself around the city, especially if time is limited. I hopped out at the Hotel Nacional for a ‘research’ mojito hoping I may see Joanna; I didn’t. But I did soak up some stunning views over the Malecon, while music echoed from a distant corner and peacocks strutted around the gardens. It’s an especially lovely location at the weekends to watch the sun set and the world go by, as Havana heads out to promenade along the Malecon.
That evening, however, I was meeting delegates at Paladar5Sentidos for dinner. My last memory of a paladar (private restaurant) was ascending a dimly lit staircase into an eclectically furnished room. This time, as I ambled through old Havana looking for the address, I was genuinely surprised to see the restaurant looking like it could have been in any city, no hidden doorway, no mismatched plates. The kitchen was open, the menu choice vast, the food and mojitos excellent, as confirmed by my fellow diners and by me.
The arrival of the newer hotels in Havana such as the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski and Iberostar Grand Packard brings with it glamorous Miami-style roof terraces with horizon pools and spectacular views – a lovely if slightly expensive way to take a break. In Old Havana, the long-established Saratoga and Parque Central have exceptional views over the National Capitol Building, and for a Hemingway connection head to the pale pink Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the roof terrace offers strong coffee and friendly staff. I may have needed both in equal measure that morning.
It feels like a lot has changed in Havana since my last visit, however the two strongest memories I have of the city were still gloriously evident. Firstly, hearing music all around, in bars and restaurants, on street corners, from car radios, like a continual soundtrack to your personal Havana discoveries. Secondly is the genuine warmth of the people – usual precautions apply for every city of course, but you’ll find you can never be lost for long, and you’ll be greeted with the friendliest welcome.
Our cabin crew know this destination incredibly well and are experts on the latest places to visit in Havana and beyond, so be sure to check with them on your next visit.