In January we slipped away from London’s winter and headed to Dar es Salaam and the Selous game reserve in Tanzania for a safari, followed by a week further south to Cape Town, South Africa. Here’s a short video shot by our friends Erika and Henry who came with us.
Oh, Cuba’s all going to change, they say, when all those planes start arriving from Miami, just 200 miles to the north. And, having just got back from Havana at the weekend, “they” are probably right. But you’ve still got time to see the island as it is for a while longer, which basically, means stuck in a time warp in the late 1950s.
I’m going to let the pictures do the talking, but I’m also adding a few pointers if you’re a first time visitor, as I was curious before I went.
Money: when you land at Jose Marti International outside Havana, you’ll need to change money. Bring Canadian Dollars, Pounds or Euros. You can in theory change US dollars but you’ll get a much stiffer exchange commission charge, so don’t bother. And for some reason you can’t change Aussie or NZ Dollars full stop. (All info correct as of February 2015).
You’ll be given Convertible Pesos, written CUCs and pronounced “Cooks”, which you have to use for hotels and most restaurants, and at the moment the rate is 1 to 1 with the US Dollar. 1 CUC is worth 25 National Pesos, which is what the locals use: in the week I was in Cuba, though, I didn’t use National Pesos once, but it’s not illegal to have them. And one last thing on money at the airport: after you go through customs, the line to change money will be long. Instead go upstairs to departures, where there are two booths (next to the departure tax window – in Cuba you have to pay CUC25 in cash when you go, it’s not added onto the ticket) and there the line should be much shorter.
And as for credit cards, don’t bother, especially if they are issued in the US. There are some ATMs in Havana apparently, although I didn’t see them, but you’ll get hit with the same dodgy US$-exchange penalties, so it’s not worth it unless you’re in a jam.
The only way into town is by taxi: the fee is CUC25 one way. The drivers won’t try and rip you off, but it’s best just to verbally confirm with them that you know it’s 25 (‘vin-tay-sinko?’) before you get in.
Need accommodation? If you haven’t pre-booked a hotel, Casas Particulares are the way forward, a cross between a B&B and AirBnB, and an example of private enterprise that’s been allowed by the government since 1997. A lady called Dulce was recommended to me, and the friend I know who stayed in her house in Habana Centro (for CUC 25 including breakfast) enjoyed it: if she has no space, she’ll know someone who can, and her mobile/cell is +53 78632506. (She only speaks Spanish). I stayed one night at the Nacional, which was interesting for its history, and ditto a night at the Habana Libre, but with hindsight, I’d rather have stayed in Centro at a Casa.
Wifi? Forget it. It’s not impossible: hotels will sell you a wifi card for CUC10 an hour, but at that rate, why not think of your time in Cuba as a digital detox. The world will survive for 7 days without your tweets. UK mobile phones will work in Cuba for sending texts, but I found sometimes the texts went through fine and other times, even when there was a signal, they didn’t – no rhyme or reason other than, hey, it’s Cuba.
The locals: Very fun and friendly: I came away with a very positive impression. Their average wage is the equivalent of between US$12.5 and US$20 per month, so tip generously when it’s warranted. Who needs that extra CUC more, you or them?
Food: I’m not going to go into details other than to say the Lonely Planet Cuba Guide* has a very good list of newly-allowed private restaurants in Havana, which serve great (if unspicy) dishes, and are better than the state offerings. (*Having praised the Lonely Planet, its food list is generally the only part that was better than the Rough Guide, which I also took, and, overall, would recommend more).
So go with an open mind, don’t expect anything approaching US or European levels of service – 20 minutes to check into a hotel where the bored-looking receptionist just stands there? No problem! – but be prepared to have an amazing time. You’ll love it.
All photos are taken by me and can’t be reproduced or copied without my written permission @Willhide 2015
I travelled with help from G Adventures who have an extensive programme of tours in Cuba.
My sister in law Alyssa was recently in town from Washington DC with her husband and kids, so who better to give a family visitor’s perspective on London?
“Looking for a great city to explore with kids? London is THE place to go.
We traveled there in August, and had the best family vacation in recent memory. The city is more family-friendly than it would first appear, it just takes a little planning and exploring.
One of our highlights was our trip to the British Museum. A treasure trove of ancient artifacts, we easily managed to find our way around with the help of the Museum’s gallery backpacks. Families can choose activities about African Adventures, Egyptian Mummies and Jobs in Roman Britain. We selected the backpack about Life in Ancient Greece. The recommended age range was 5-9 years, which made it perfect for exploring with our 5 year old and 9 year old. A £10 deposit (returned when we finished with the materials) and we were off. The activities gave the kids a chance to dress up in a toga and try to recreate an ancient temple with magnetic puzzle pieces. Their favorite was the chance to sit on the gallery floor and play knucklebones after checking out artifacts of everyday Greek games.
Another family-friendly bonus? At the British Museum Gallery Café, kids eat free with the purchase of an adult meal. Not only was the museum visit a memorable part of our trip, it was a budget friendly one as well.
The Tower of London is also fun with kids. Our son loved the collections of weapons and meeting the Beefeaters, and everyone was dazzled by the Crown Jewels. One tip: it seems obvious, but lines are shorter earlier in the day. When we entered the Crown Jewels, we only waited 30 minutes. By the time we exited, the wait was a not-5-year-old-friendly 2 hours long.
Obsessed with Harry Potter? London features many book and movie highlights. My 9 year old daughter and I visited the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour, about an hour outside of the city. We both ooh’d and ahh’d over everything from the Gryffindor Common Room movie set to the super sweet Butter Beer. It was a great outing for the wand-obsessed. One note: the studio recommends allowing 3.5-4 hours for the full tour. Even with waiting in line to make our own flying broomstick video and a careful investigation of the gift shop, we were done in less than 3 hours.
Our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to King’s Cross Station to visit the famous Platform 9 & 3/4. It was crowded and a little disappointing. We didn’t plan for the enormous line that snaked through and then back outside the railway station, which one needed to stand in to get a photo next to the famous sign on the wall. Instead, our kids settled for a distance picture, and making it to our next destination on time.
Want to see live theater? There are lots of kids-friendly shows currently running in the West End. This time, we went to see a terrific production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The music and sets were fabulous. The show was a huge hit with our 9 year old, who has read the book multiple times, but was a little long for our 5 year old. A surprise bonus for us was Willy Wonka entering the box where we were sitting to take his final bow.
Tired of sightseeing? Head to Hampstead Heath. It features a fabulous playground, with a massive sand play area, swings, slides, a climbing area and even a shallow swimming pool for warm days. While the Heath is in the midst of urban London, it has a countryside feel. After the novelty of the playground wore off, we hiked up the Health itself for a stunning view of London.
Getting from place to place proved to be yet another form of entertainment for our family. Riding the tube was a lot of fun for us suburbanites, but nothing beat sitting in front row seats on the top of a double decker bus. Planning routes as tourists was fairly easy. We just had to keep in mind the warning that distances on the tube map were not to scale.
Where to eat? Our favorite London family spot is Giraffe, with locations throughout the city. They do sandwiches, pastas and salads well, and have an extensive kids menu. Bonus: drinks come with their own plastic giraffe. Another popular stop was Wagamama, the Japanese noodle house. They offer kids everything from simple chicken and noodles, to versions of their adult entrees, leaving both our foodie and our not-so-adventurous eater with options.
Our entire family loved our London visit and can’t wait to go back. A little planning made one of the largest cities in the world the perfect spot for our family to explore”
(Photos: Photo of Alyssa c/o herself; Tower of London & British Museum = www.london-pictures.com; Giraffe = from the company’s Instagram feed).