Cuba: your next luxury holiday hotspot

For more than 50 years, Cuba has preferred to do things its own way.

The island nation sits little more than the width of Bass Strait away from the US mainland, yet has spent the past half a century in a self-enforced time warp.

Change is in the air, though, and coming so fast and palpably you can almost see it happening. You hear it, too, in the conversations of Cubanistas such as Gustavo, who recently began renting an upstairs apartment in Havana's hip Vedado district to tourists via Airbnb. Such digital entrepreneurialism would have been both conceptually inconceivable and actually impossible a few years ago.

After enduring a lifetime of struggle to make ends meet under the strict socialism that effectively isolated Cuba from the rest of the world, our host is excited to finally see the tourist dollars flowing in. An intensely proud man, Gustavo despairs at the dilapidated state of his city's jagged footpaths, neglected roads and the once-majestic street facades that are literally falling apart.

He is, however, delighted to share with a first-time visitor a few of Havana's hidden gems.

The winds of change

For the first time last month, giant American cruise ships began plying the day-long sail south from Miami, allowing Americans to travel directly between the two nations for the first time since Fidel Castro led the 1959 revolution that isolated Cuba from the West.

Earlier this year, the Rolling Stones smashed down a cultural blockade, playing a free concert in Havana to a rapturous crowd estimated to number half a million.

And a massive, glamorous runway show in central Havana by luxury fashion house Chanel was perhaps the most obvious avatar for the capitalist future that the cash-starved nation is preparing to embrace.

At the time of writing, Americans still cannot board a plane on US soil and fly directly south to their closest island neighbour. Yet intrepid Americans and other global travellers still flood in ever-growing numbers into Cuba via indirect flights, from Mexico, Panama, Colombia and even Canada.

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The inevitable rescinding of the no-fly ban between the two countries will bring not only a massive new wave of tourists waving fists full of greenbacks; on the same flights will be forward scouts for McDonald's, Hilton Hotels, Apple and Ford, and a thousand other multi-nationals keen to conquer ripe new territory.

Cuba versus capitalism

Yes, capitalismo is coming to Cuba, which will reap undoubted benefits. Like a sponge, it's already soaking up the first breakers preceding a tidal wave of cash.

One Havana avenue, Calle 23, has been relaid for several kilometres with smooth black hot-mix. Gustavo informs us this is because Hollywood movie franchise Fast & Furious chose Cuba as the location for its latest blockbuster, and used the sinuous thoroughfare to film numerous of its adrenalised driving scenes.

We'd love to know what Fidel Castro – the hardline architect of socialism who stood down for health reasons in 2008 – makes of that.

Careful what you wish for

The internet, which remains largely unavailable to most and also severely restricted in content, will come to Cuban households, as will reliable telecommunications.

Digital disrupters such as Airbnb already allow the world unprecedented ability to book an authentic Cuban residential stay in a few clicks. This, is turn, allows cash-strapped Cubans like Gustavo to have direct access into the wallets of rich Western tourists. Netflix is another bonus awaiting Cubans who will eventually achieve reliable download speeds.

A double-edged sword – among the first of many for Cuba to grapple with – is that other tech darlings such as Uber must surely follow. That would bring the potential to smash, or at least irrevocably alter, one of Havana's most unique tourist draws, the taxi trade plied by locals driving gargantuan American cars that pre-date the Revolution.

Cubans have a strong sense of nationalism rooted in a defiant and frequently bloody past; yet optimism about the future abounds among locals spoken to by Executive Style.

Your new holiday favourite

What does it all mean for the well-heeled Australian traveller keen to experience everything this island paradise has to offer?

Once flights to Cuba begin routing out of the US, it will become a stronger drawcard than ever for well-travelled Australians. With Qantas currently flying direct to Dallas-Fort Worth daily, Havana could become a one-stop hop from Sydney. Currently Australians need to fly into the US and out again, most commonly to Mexico City or Panama, to gain access to Cuba.

The cost of flights aside, at the time of writing a Cuban holiday is ridiculously affordable. A growing array of Havana accommodation via Airbnb goes for under $200 a night – or substantially less, if you stay in funky Vedado or cosmopolitan Miramar rather than the tourist-heavy old town.

A three-course meal of either Western or Cuban influence costs less than $25, local and imported beers are $2 to $3 each, and signature Cuban cocktails such as the Daiquiri, Mojito and Cuba Libre are $7 to $10 each.

The aforementioned taxi fleet, based around curvaceous '50s-era American cars, is the best and most fun way to traverse the city, as you share rides with the locals in true jump-on-jump-off fashion. It should cost no more than $15 to drive from one end of town to the other, or substantially less if you like to barter and can speak a little Spanish.

Smoke and mirrors

If cigars and/or rum are your poison, plenty of enterprising locals will be keen to escort you to their upstairs abode to hammer out a 'special deal' for you. Keep in mind that authenticity in these circumstances is not guaranteed, and that Australia's Border Force only allows importation of cigars to a total weight of 50 grams.

For the more luxury-oriented tourist, Cuba is growing in stature by the day. Major new hotels are going up all over the island that will be geared towards the high roller, and that's before the likes of the Hilton and Intercontinental get out of the blocks.

Staying in style

The most prestigious pile in town currently – and for the past 80 years – is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which occupies a prime seafront plot about five minutes' drive out of Havana central.

Beautifully appointed and with a rich history to boot, having served as a headquarters to revolutionary comrades Castro and Che Guevara and hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn and Winston Churchill, it's undoubtedly one of the world's great hotels.

If you prefer to be in the thick of the bustling old town, try the imposing Saratoga or choose Palacio O'Farrill, where you can marvel at the imposing colonnaded central courtyard while sipping a chilled Daiquiri to counter the oppressive humidity.

If a slice of real Cuban life is what you seek, Airbnb has a wide variety of homestays, rented apartments or full houses for rental, typically with a good dollop of local knowledge thrown in for good measure.

Out and about

Strolling the old town's grid of streets and laneways, souvenirs celebrating the city's culture and its revolutionary past are plentiful. There are many high-end fashion boutiques along Calle Obispo, although with the big European names still to arrive, brand snobs may turn up their noses at many of the swing tags.

Off the beaten path, opportunities abound to sample local cuisine, and there's also plenty of Western options. Le Chansonnier in Vedado is arguably the most high-end feed in town with Western-style dishes that draw upon local ingredients and influences. Skip dessert and walk half a dozen blocks to Coppelia, the massive ice cream parlour that takes up an entire suburban block. So popular is Coppelia with the locals that queues form from opening time at 10am and continue all day and into the evening.

Channel your inner Hemingway

If you want to follow the alleged path trodden by US writer Ernest Hemingway, pop into La Bodeguita Del Medio on Calle Empedrado, a tiny hole-in-the-wall cantina where Mojitos are pretty much the only drink on the menu. Or stop off at La Floridita at the very top of Obispo, the so-called home of the Daiquiri where a bronzed statue of the great man props up a corner of the bar.

A Latin-jazz quartet plays to a steady stream of tourists and it doesn't take too much encouragement to get them to reel off a rendition of the insanely catchy unofficial national anthem, Guantanamera (which refers wistfully to 'the girl from Guantanamo', clearly pre-dating some of the less savoury activities more recently linked to that location).

Another local legend to have achieved global fame is the Buena Vista Social Club, and there are plenty of tribute groups around to this famed national institution. If you're lucky, you might hear a whisper from a local about where to catch them.

Cigars and salsa

For some, a Havanan odyssey wouldn't be complete without chomping down on a genuine Cuban stogie. Smoking is generally accepted in most public areas, including cafes, and cigars are available almost everywhere. And as our Airbnb host points out, it's worth paying extra to purchase from a reputable retailer to get the genuine experience. One does not travel to Italy then buy frozen pizza from the supermarket.

Others will deem it mandatory to salsa the night away with the same joyous abandon as the locals do, and there are literally hundreds of choices from the organised dance hall action at Vedado's Teatro Bertholdt Brecht to spontaneous sessions at tiny cafes after dark in the old town.

Turning up the heat

However, if you're all about a laying-by-the-pool/beach sort of holiday, Havana may not be for you, in spite of being able to turn on the 34-degree, 90 per cent humidity days we experienced.

The island does have some outstanding beaches, some only an hour or two outside the capital, but there are hundreds of resort destinations in Australia's own backyard as good, or better. And with an acute water shortage on the island, the few resort pools at major hotels appeared to be bone dry.

Will the onslaught of full-bottle capitalism be the making of Cuba, or its ruination? Will the locals remaining endearingly welcoming, or feel cynically exploited? Can the West's tourism dollar breathe new life into its decaying colonial façade, or will it rip the beating heart out of a city that has survived a century of bloody uprising and slow decline?

I wouldn't wait to find out.

Steve Colquhoun stayed in Havana as a guest of Airbnb.