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My private Havana journey - "almendrones", "paladares" and "casas particulares"

Havana's private sector is in its best moment; in fact it has really just started to really blossom and develop over the past year, at an accelerating pace after the recent reforms the government put in place to allow a more free-market economy. As a result more private businesses are opening up all over the city – from locksmiths and photographers, to carpenters and hairdressing salons – the state has now expanded the rules for self-employment to include virtually any form of trade.

Although "casas particulares" (the Cuban version of a BandB) and "paladares" (private restaurants) have existed since the late 90s, these were in the most part, very humble abodes that could hardly compete with the quality of accommodation of state-owned hotels or restaurants. But that is no longer the case, as now more and more sophisticated versions of these are springing up, to the benefit of the locals and the surrounding community.

But first things first, to learn about my journey trying and testing Cuba's new private sector, one must start from the very beginning – my arrival to the city after a nine-hour flight with my travelling team – a group of friends from work who gladly took on the challenge (and who wouldn't – it was more an adventure than a challenge, and an incredibly enriching one at that).

My journey to Havana – the direct flight with Virgin Atlantic

Many people might not be aware of it, but there are twice-weekly direct flights to Cuba's capital operated by Virgin Atlantic from London. Departing from Gatwick's South Terminal (LGW) on Thursdays and Mondays, and getting to the island and back in less than 10 hours, flying to Cuba from the UK is straightforward and comfortable, especially with Virgin's modern fleet of Boeing 747s – all recently re-fitted with new seats and their signature entertainment equipment – Vera (which I believe to be the best in the business – so much entertainment for all tastes it's impossible to watch everything you plan to).

My travelling crew chose to fly out on a Monday, and with a departure time of 12:00 we didn't have to rise too early in the morning to catch our flight, especially since we had done the check-in online 24 hours prior, which meant all we have to do was queue up for the bag drop (there were only two people in front of us) and on we were on our merry time, with plenty of time to sit down with a cup of coffee (or a hearty breakfast for some of us).

On board of virgin flight

Once onboard we were treated to a welcome drink or cocktail (your choice), and it wasn't long before we were served lunch. We were handed a menu from which we could take our pick between a beef lasagne, chicken coq au vin, or a Thai vegetable curry for my vegetarian colleagues (who all said was very tasty, although I found it extremely hot, too much so for my liking, but perhaps that's something to mention to the Virgin crew, that vegetarian doesn't necessarily mean "spicy" and all vegetarians aren't Asian-bred and as such aren't used to that level of spire). Anyway, aside from the choice of mains aforementioned, there was a Ceasar pasta salad as a starter, accompanied by a choice of drinks (a selection of wines, beers, spirits and soft drinks or a fruity cocktail – with our without alcohol). For dessert we had a GU dessert of key lime pie – yummy!

We whiled away the hours by chatting, reading books, browsing magazines, making the most of the impressive collection of onboard entertainment, and generally chilling. Before we knew it we were descending into Havana's international airport and bracing ourselves with eager expectation for the adventure we were about to embark on.

My arrival and private transfer in an "almendron"

Upon touching down on Havana and arriving to the Jose Marti International Airport (HAV), we proceeded to the immigration queue, which was quite long and not exactly fast-moving, but thankfully the heat wasn't overbearing (the air conditioning was on, not on the coolest setting, it must be said, but keeping the sticky humidity at bay with a somewhat refreshing climate – although again, not cool enough for my liking, but better than nothing I suppose)

After passing through immigration and getting our bags (that proved another lengthy process, I really don't know what it is with Cuban airports and their slow service at keeping they must do it at a super slow speed. There was only one other flight that needed bag servicing, yet somewhat the personnel was stretched so badly they couldn't properly do both at the time. The worst of the matter is that it causes really bad first impressions at a time when visitors are weary and tired after a long flight and just wish to get to their hotel and have a good rest. A speedier service would put everyone in a better mood and well on their way to falling in love with the island. So, a real shame, but you have to look past that, scratch the surface and Cuba's seductive ways will reveal themselves to you.

My private transfer in Havana - almendron.

But all queues and long waiting times were instantly forgotten once we hopped aboard the classic 50s car waiting for us as part of our private transfer. After being greeted by Elio, one of The Holiday Place's local representatives in Cuba we were introduced to our Chevrolet 210 – a true gem of engineering and amazingly well-kept work of art. Our red convertible two-door Chevrolet took us on a ride along Havana, passing through the picturesque tree-lined streets of Vedado, and advancing all the way to Malecon, where we came to a halt just before reaching the sea. Our vintage car parked on a side street and we disembarked as the chauffeur assisted us with our luggage. After our feet touched the pavement, we took a moment to raise our eyes and glance at the salmon-pink walls of what would be our homely lodging for the week.

Our casas particulares – Artedel and Casa Colonial Daymela

Both the casas particulares we booked as part of our "private Havana" experiences were close to the sea, just footsteps away from the city's famous Malecon seawall and within easy walking distance to many of the entertainment spots of this modern downtown area. Old Havana and its colonial beauty were just a short 10-minute cab ride away or a long sedate walk along the Malecon promenade, (a walk alongside its seven kilometres of seafront is an experience in itself, one that I recently blogged about on another post).

We were split into two groups, the ones staying at Daymela's colonial house, which included my husband and I, as well as two ladies in our group, and the rest, who stayed on the magnificent penthouse of a tall building directly facing the azure waters of the Malecon.

The latter was a modern apartment with the luxury of a boutique hotel, while the former was a more cosy and homely abode, with the warmth of the friendly hosts and the beauty of a grandiose colonial house, a magnificent time piece in all its glory. Both totally different, yet each with its unique charms, these two were the finest examples of the different things you can experience in Havana, while staying in a convenient, centric location that's also right be the sea (allowing for lovely panoramic walks by the seaside, people-watching and nighttime entertainment at a long list of nearby bars, jazz cafes and clubs). Undoubtedly, Vedado is the place to be based at in Havana, if you want to be close to the local nightlife and take time to explore the city at your own pace.

Daymela's Colonial House – charm and authenticity guaranteed

Casa Particular - Daymela's colonial house

Daymela's house is more suited to those who want to enjoy the genuine care of a family home, without forgoing the comfort and convenience of a private guest room with ensuite bathroom and a host of homely amenities you won't miss from a hotel.

If you thought casas particulares, were dubious, patchy in places, unsafe or improvised spare rooms in some crumbly old Cuban houses, then you couldn't have been more wrong. If at one point, in its very beginnings; they were somewhat more rustic and unpolished, a decade on, and some international influences later, they have been spruced up to look their best and to cater to the most discerning of worldwide clients. Varying in price, and quality, casas particulares are humble yet charming at their worst and surprisingly spectacular at their best. But somewhere between the two extremes lies a selection of mid-range beauty that are not only accessible to every pocket but also exude a charm that's unique to this country.

Daymela's colonial house is a fine example of this. With homely decor and touches that clearly differentiate it from the cold vibe of standard hotel room, yet with modern amenities to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Daymela (a medical doctor by profession), her husband and their daughter all live here, so you know that as part of your holiday experience you'll be getting to know a traditional Cuban family. But if the feeling of sharing a house with a family makes you feel somewhat uneasy, or you fear lack of privacy then let me put your fears at bay.

Damela's patio with comfy seating in form of rocking chairs.

For starters the house is large and spacious, with high ceilings that give an even more enhanced sensation of space. There are plenty of open spaces too, a large front door patio with plenty of comfy seating in the form of rocking chairs – a great place to enjoy the gentle morning and afternoon breeze. Secondly, Daymela and her family live upstairs, on the second floor, so you'll only come across them on counted occasions. In any case they always go about their business without minding your own, so unless you want to talk to her and interact, she won't intrude or disturb in any way. Discretion and privacy are at the utmost of the service they provide, never intrusive, never imposing. You'll feel as part of a very relaxed family who each gets on with their own life without disturbing the peace and harmony of this soothingly quiet home. Even when the house is operating at full capacity and all guest rooms occupied, it'll never feel crowded or invasive, that you can definitely count on.

Upon arriving to the brightly painted tall, coral-coloured mansion we admired the fine ironwork of the wrought-iron gate, the long tall columns supporting the weight of the porch and the picturesque white balaustrades dotting the exterior wall and beautifully contrasting with the salmon-coloured paint on top. We also noticed how close to the sea we actually were and how you could see it while standing on the front porch, in fact you could breathe in the pleasant salty air that's so cleansing and refreshing. A real change from fume-infected London, that's for sure. The best part is that you don't even have to be on the outskirts of the city to enjoy the sea, it's right there in the most centric part of Havana's downtown area.

The lady that opened the long, wooden front door welcomed us in and invited us to take a seat while she notified the owner, Daymela, of our arrival. We later found out that she was the one in charge of the daily housekeeping service and the cooking of daily breakfast (which was charged at an extra 5 CUC per person but which was totally worth it – more on this later on).

Daymela's house's spacious living room with a vintage touch.

After no more than a couple of minutes of waiting around, which we put to good use by inspecting the candid beauty of the house's spacious living room, with its vintage touches, its eclectic mix of styles, the different bits and pieces, the quirky fish tank and ultimate warmth, Daymela appeared with a welcoming smile whilst excusing herself for having been attending to a call. She understood English and spoke some Italian as well, but it was ultimately her husband who fluently spoke a good level of English and with whom most of my colleagues spoke the most. I, on my part, I'm a fluent Spanish speaker so on a few occasions I exchanged words with the charming Daymela and got to know more about her family, their lodging business, their growing success and their plans to expand in the future and make another room available.

All guest rooms were differently themed each featuring unique decor.

At the time we arrived at Daymela's all four rooms available for rent were free, so we had a choice between the Blue Room, the Red Room and the two family rooms, one offering one double bed and two single beds, while the other offered a double bed and a single bed. (At the time Daymela kindly informed us that the supplement for a third person in the room was an extra 10 CUC per night, which was fair considering the nightly double rate per night was only 35 CUC per room. In total, all rooms have a capacity for sleeping up to 11 guests at anyone time, although you'll hardly find it to be that full, and if it ever is you might come back home with a more enriching experience than expected and a few more friends than you planned.) All the guest rooms, as you probably guessed by their names, are differently themed, they each feature unique decor and two of them have a distinctive colour theme carried out throughout. Likewise, the tiling and decor of the ensuite bathrooms in all rooms all a feature a unique design and colour scheme (with the one inside the Blue Room matching the colour scheme of the room).

Long spacious corridors with high ceilings and period furniture.

Elsewhere in the house, along the long spacious corridors, you come across some real period furniture to be admired, wardrobe, quirky bits and pieces here there, knick knacks from different time periods or styles, all of which exudes an authenticity and uniqueness typical of a family home that would be impossible to find in a hotel setting.

We could have squeezed ourselves in the family room which was made up of a large double bed and two single beds, but we wanted to experience the rooms as individuals, a couple in the case of me and my husband, and a girl from our group.

The Blue Room with its romantic ambience

I was lured by the prospect of staying in the Blue Room as it's the only one that has a secret door to the outside. Daymela explained to me that she recommended this one to honeymooners, or couples seeking privacy as the private (and well hidden thanks to a long blue curtain draped over it) door meant being able to get in and out completely unnoticed by the other house dwellers or guests – an attractive plus, but nothing that I couldn't do without. This was a holiday for me to fully experience and absorb, and I wanted to do so by interacting with everyone and everything as much as possible, not by shying away from it all and retreating myself to a corner at the end of an eventful.

So, because I wasn't the intimacy-seeking kind of guest and the fact that I liked the Red Room so much more, with its warm hues and romantic ambience, that's where I ended up staying. One of the girls in our group took the Blue Room instead and made use of the "secret door" which said was indeed a great feature for seclusion-seeking couples, but she didn't make much use of it.

Red room as well as all rooms were fantastically equipped with amenities.

Rooms were all fantastically equipped with amenities such as air conditioning, TV, mini-fridge, hot and cold water, bathroom toiletries, ample wardrobe space with hangers. Housekeeping is done daily unless requested not to be done by guests. Towels and bedsheets are changed every three days but if guests wish for their towels to be changed daily they can indicate so by throwing them on the bathroom floor, inside the shower plate. I'm all for eco-conscious travel and no-waste measures so I adhered to the twice-weekly routine, but for someone more fussy about daily hygiene, rest assured they'll give fresh new sheets daily if you wish it so.

Our days at Daymela's house were like a daze of colour and light, where every morning we would wake up to the seductive aroma of Cuban coffee, the fruity smell of freshly cut fruits and the inviting scent of freshly made toast. There's a choice between Continental, American and European breakfast, with the American one including, pancakes, eggs made-to-order, coffee, milk or fruit juice while the European version offers a tropical fruit salad, a selection of tropical juices and a coffee (with a choice between espresso or cappuccino). Lastly, the hearty continental option includes a ham and cheese sandwich or eggs, toast with butter or jam, a fruit salad, white coffee or a Cuban espresso.

Breakfasts were abundant and filling, and depending on the time of day we had it, our bellies were kept full and hunger well at bay all the way until lunch, which we had while out exploring some nook and cranny of the city.

Dinner was offered at Daymela's on a "per request" basis. If we wanted to dine in we had to notify her in advance, so she could do the shopping and order the fresh ingredients (usually fresh seafood with lobster in the menu – yum!). It was charged at 15 CUC per person, which was more than reasonable considering the sheer abundance of the banquet, and you were welcome to second helpings of everything. A dining experience at Daymela's, even if it's just one during your stay, is a real must. You'll feel like dining in family as you sample the flavours of a Cuban homemade meal, with traditional side dishes and a selection of drinks included.

Daymela also offers laundry service, and it's charged per item washed and ironed, the price of this I never asked, as I had brought more than enough change of clothes with me, but I presume it'd be much cheaper than at hotels.

I travelled in January and the weather was pleasantly mild, but even on the hottest days it never felt too warm inside Daymela's breezy home, with the high ceilings allowing for plenty of fresh air to circulate, and the gentle cooling sea breeze filtering through the windows as well as some air. Some nights air conditioning wasn't even needed at all and we slept comfortably.

The Taste of Havana Tour – an insightful journey into the new private sector

On the third day of our visit to Havana, we went on the new Taste of Havana Tour, the last touches of which are still being tweaked to offer the most complete and exciting touring experience. This new tour is unique in its kind, as is the first to incorporate a fresh and modern insight into the recent economic reforms in the country and how they are affecting the local community. As part of the tour you'll not only be learning about how Cuba's private sector is now booming, but also how it is directly impacting in the lives of the locals.

This is a two-day tour and the different experiences are split over the course of these two days.

Tour around Old Havana, the beauty and the history of the colonial buildings.

On the first day, you'll enjoy a morning tour around Old Havana, taking in the beauty and the history of the colonial buildings with baroque and neoclassical touches, the old city walls, the colourful dwellings, the restored mansions and the picturesque squares. Later in the afternoon you are taken on a drive-by city tour on a classic car, where you'll be shown around the old and new parts of the city, with a full. At night, the tour continues by taking you to the Morro Cabana castle to witness the nightly cannon shooting ceremony at 9:00 pm – a 200-year-old tradition that's still kept alive from the time when the city would shut its walls.

On the second day you were offered Cuba's brand new "private experience". As you are walked towards a humble neighbourhood in Old Havana where a new community of private businesses is beginning to bloom, you'll be given a brief background and full introduction to the government's new economic reforms, allowing for private property, self-employment and the opening of new private businesses. This is where it got really interesting and eye-opening for me, especially since I already knew Havana pretty well (no surprise there; having been born and raised in the city after all!) which meant that the first day of the tour was highly enjoyable but nothing there was really new to me. I knew the history and had seen the sights, but it was still very nice to re-visit the same places, see the changes (if any) and learn about future plans and projects for restoring things around the city.

Barrio del Santo Angel – the story of a humble beginning

To witness how the private sector is currently developing in Cuba, you'll be taken to a small neighbourhood in Old Havana, known as Barrio del Santo Angel. Named after the church that looks over it, this neighbourhood is the birthplace of an amazing community project founded by one of its residents – Gilberto Valladares, a.k.a. "Papito". But before we continue and introduce you to the social community project that Papito himself kick-started, a brief introduction to this peculiar vicinity is in order.

The Church of Santo Angel Custodio.

The Barrio del Santo Angel is famous for not only being home to the church in which Cuba's national heroes, Jose Marti and Felix Varela were baptised, but also for being the setting of Cuba's most famously acclaimed, award-winning novel, Cecilia Valdes. The very last scene in the book takes place right in front of the church. The Church of Santo Angel Custodio is in itself is a piece of architecture worth admiring and photographing. It's not huge, it's not remarkable or in any way grand, but it has a charming, unpretentious and simple beauty that isn't easily overlooked, so I recommend you to snap away its Neo-Gothic features.

Chic-looking boutique and care sitting across the church.

The thing that will strike you most upon entering this neighbourhood (if you enter from Compostela street) is the sleek, chic-looking boutique and cafe, sitting right across the church. This place exudes exclusivity and a somewhat European allure, especially if you wonder inside, but on the outside what you'll notice straight away (you can't help but) is the lovely outdoor furniture, with tables and parasols perfectly blending into the colonial landscape, with the contrasting background of colourful, picturesque houses and narrow cobbled streets. While such a refined, modern and glamorous elegant venue might look out of place in such a humble, old neighbourhood, you wouldn't notice it much unless you take a peek inside the boutique, where it's all shiny and sleek. The outside doesn't stand out too much from the rows of colonial buildings, thanks to a simple grey façade and chairs. They offer a delectable selection of pastries, pancakes, crepes, smoothies, coffees and cocktails as well as light meals and delicious lunches. All this not at a cheap price, but outstanding service and quality can be expected. Likewise if you look at the prices of Jacqueline Fumero's designer clothing and jewellery (also on sale) your jaw might drop. This is one of the reasons that our guide didn't much like the place, because it is the type of elitist private business that most Cubans can't afford and which doesn't give back to the community, unlike most of the other private venues in the neighbourhood that support the social ArteCorte community project (more on this later).

Nevertheless, despite the staggering prices in the less-than-wealthy neighbourhood, this corner has been highly acclaimed by many visitors and passers-by. In fact if you see the amazing reviews on TripAdvisor you'll want to make time during your holiday in Havana to stop here and enjoy a coffee, a cocktail, a freshly-made smoothie or a tasty meal. Most tourists leave rave reviews so they must be doing something right.

ArteCorte social community project

This is where the fascinating bit really starts, as we learnt how this humble community is working hard for the benefit of its dwellers, especially in favour the most vulnerable ones, the children, teenagers and the elderly.

As I mentioned earlier, an exceptional community member, affectionately called "Papito", in his eagerness to take the often overlooked and disregarded profession of barber or hairdresser, to new heights and make it more popular and relevant, created a school of hairdressing funded by his very own, successful barbershop (a true work of art and a vintage jewel as you'll see in the photos, with retro hairdressing furniture and ornaments).

His secondary, but not any less important aim with the foundation of this school, was not only to "glorify" hairdressing and give it back its lost sparkle, but also to train more hairdressers within the community while inspiring and encouraging youngsters living in poverty, to develop their skills and have an opportunity to earn their living in an honest, hard-working way. He wanted to take them away from the streets and into work, and so far it's been working nicely, even thought the project it's still in its very early beginnings.

Casa Museo de la Barberia with many artefacts and unique time pieces.

Because this is such a humble neighbourhood (and most of Old Havana is), there are many youngsters with problematic backgrounds, difficult childhoods and delinquent youth. This is why this kind of initiative is so crucial to inspiring little ones from an early beginning... but exactly how? Well, the project, started in 1999 in the Casa Museo de la Barberia, owned by Papito and providing an exclusive haircutting experience with vintage furniture, unique time pieces and old hairdressing artefacts and paraphernalia. The place itself wows anyone who enters; it's like taking a step back in time, a big one.

A good portion of the earnings from this outstanding hair salon goes directly to the local community, funding social projects for the most vulnerable in the community (namely children and the elderly) such as local eatery for the elderly (where anyone can come and be served nutritious meals for a pittance), the creation of an old people's centre ( where the most vulnerable older members of the community are not only given free meals but also a space for entertainment and crafts, as well as medical assistance), the building of quirky little park for children, the Barbeparque (its imaginative design around hairdressing objects will no doubt amuse you) and more recently the plans to build a football pitch for children and youngsters to organise local competitions and put their free time to good use.

Colourful corner of Marta Elena's art studio.

But Papito's magnificent hairdressing salon is not the only one contributing to such a great and ever-growing project. Many other new private businesses springing in Barrio del Santo Angel are also giving their input to the local community. Such is the case, for the locally born and raised, Marta Elena and her art studio, a colourful corner in this vicinity where she displays her distinctively cheerful and brightly-coloured paintings as well as those of local artists who don't have a space for showcasing their art. If you, like me, fall in love with any of her rather quirky and fantasy-filled paintings, you'll be glad to know that by purchasing one of her unique works of art (or that of her artist friends) part of your money will also be going to the funding of fantastic new projects for young and old.

We were explained in detail what some of the new projects still in their early stages involved. Our local guide, also born and raised in the neighbourhood told us of plans to create a new sports centre for youngsters with an indoor football area for boys and a gymnastics section for girls. Other initiatives included the creation of a yearly marathon, where the uniforms would be provided to youngsters for free, referees would be hired and prizes would be given out. They had even envisaged the creation of a Summer Cup for locals aged between 15 to 20 years old, whereby they would compete in different groups, each representing their street.

Our friendly local guide also told us how the Office of the Historian would also help out with funds for the repair of a sports area and the creation of a storage unit to keep sports equipment such as uniforms, balls, etc. Other incentives for youngsters include locally organised excursions to nearby museums and places of interest, because these kids live surrounded by colonial history and culture, yet most of them, because of their marginal background and lack of parental education, ignore it.

But one of the most significant projects here and the most successful without a doubt is the ArteCorte community project, kick-started and mostly funded by Papito himself. He created an academy to train idle youngsters and give them a life purpose and career (away from the streets). The school is presided by voluntary teachers from the local community (some of whom now are past students themselves) who train unoccupied youngsters from the community (not currently working or studying) aged between 17 to 21. All teaching is given on a voluntary basis and during a one-year course with a group of up to 10 students per course (this limit is only due to the size of the current but an expansion plan is on the works to admit more students).

As part of the tour we visited the ArteCorte hairdressing school and needless to say were very impressed with the quality of the facilities, more modern than Papito's vintage relic of a barbershop, but still with vintage touches here and there.

It's hoped that this pioneering model of a community project driven by the private sector of its own community members, can be copied across more and more neighbourhoods in the city (especially in the old part which is so impoverished with many of its buildings in a seriously worrying crumbling state), not only to take youngsters out of criminal situations and off the streets, but also so that the areas can become more self-sufficient.

Barrio del Santo Angels was a poor and badly destroyed backstreet not too long ago, but thanks to the efforts of The Office of the Historian, the pioneering action of Papito and the new members of Cuba's emerging private sector now also contributing, many buildings have been restored, many streets have been made pedestrian-only (with plans to make more of these car-free), many elderly members of the community are receiving special attention, children have a new park (with super cheap hair-cutting service) and young people have been given guidance, education and inspiration to form a lifelong career.

The harmony and local prosperity achieved here is an example to follow in other neighbourhoods and one that many are eager to copy, but as everything with Cuba, it all happens at a slow pace, slowly but surely, they'll get there. So I that if you keep your eyes peeled (and even if you don't) you'll be able to see various artistic expressions on walls and murals depicting the art of hair cutting.

Lunch in El Figaro

The morning section of Taste of Havana tour ends with a tasty lunch at El Figaro, perfectly located at the other end of Barrio del Santo Angel, in a pretty area facing the ArteCorte Hairdressing Community School, in a narrow alley where many other restaurants and private businesses are rapidly opening up. El Figaro, fittingly named after the famous character in the opera production, the Barber of Seville, and aptly located on Barbers Alley, is a small and charming restaurant right next to a small and quaint square.

The entrance of El Figaro, a newly opened restaurant.

With a quirky slogan that goes "El Figaro, food with no hair", this newly opened restaurant (we talked to the friendly owned, who also served us that day and who told us the restaurant had been in operation since only two months ago) gives passers-by a simple yet super-tasty menu with a choice of delectable dishes from land and sea, as well as separate menu with a long list of freshly prepared smoothies and freshly squeezed juices to achieve specific health goals (detoxify, aid digestion, slim down, etc).

With intimate and elegant seating with a somewhat eclectic touch and a scatter of memorabilia here and there, El Figaro is cosy and simply decorated, yet with the odd splash of colour here and there (specially on the bar table downstairs) – all tastefully done. In fact if it weren't for the heritage reminders, you could say this place had a modern and edgy European vibe.

If you choose to be outside, there is plenty of seating space on the adjacent square. On a good day (and let's face it, Cuba has more of those than most countries) more tables and chairs are taken out (it was windy and cloudy when we went so there were only a couple of empty tables outside) and the dining experience is enhanced by people-watching and absorbing the enchanting atmosphere of this place.

El Figaro's interior with large prints of Old Havana buildings.

On our visit we chose to sit indoors as it was rather windy day (and I was wearing a strapless dress) and we were swiftly taken to the second floor, where we given a choice of where to sit as it wasn't particularly busy. I chose to sit by the window and while we waited for our drinks, I took a few minutes to glance here and there. The large prints depicting some Old Havana buildings made me smile; it was like a juxtaposition of the city in the early to late 30s, the city nowadays in full colour and in the possible future, with black and white sections showing the old advertisements of the time and then a more futuristic montage with the big brands of today, Panasoic, Nestle and iPod. It was quirky and funny in its own way, a refreshing way, but not really my choice if I could help it. There's nothing that would dishearten me more than seeing Cuba's iconic colonial buildings commercialised and taken over by adverts everywhere – I truly pray this never happens.

El Figaro starters - tomato and Serrano ham bruschettas.

When the waiter came (whom we later found out was also the owner – such discreet yet personalised service he offers too) he told us the dishes of the day. The menu was eclectic and a mix of Cuban and Spanish cuisine with Basque influences. For starters we could choose from tomato or Serrano ham bruschettas, octopus pintxos, a Nicoise salad or gazpacho. My husband went for the Serrano ham bruschettas and I chose the tomato ones. For mains we could choose from a grilled filet of freshly caught fish (in this case it was red snapper), pork fajitas, grilled prawns, octopus ‘al ajillo' and grilled lobster tail. All of these were a very decent 6 CUC per portion, except the lobster which was 10 CUC, very reasonable indeed. All in all, including dessert and an après-meal coffee we spent no more than 35 CUC in total, and it would have been less if I had gone for the free sangria offered with the mains, instead of the smoothie I became keen on trying.

The lobster tail for the main course at El Figaro

For the main course I had pork fajitas while my husband went for the lobster tail. Everything was really nice and tasty, and despite the portions looking a bit on the small side (I thought so anyway, but then again I was really hungry that day) they were surprisingly filling, to the point that I had a bit of trouble getting the last few bites in. But of course I let my husband help me because there always needs to be space left for dessert. And I'm certainly glad I made room as my portion of brownie-style chocolate cake with a dash of mousse, proved heavenly. Likewise my husband thoroughly enjoyed his raspberry cheesecake.

We left the place with a pleasantly full belly and the satisfaction of knowing that a fraction of the cost of our meal would contribute to the further development of this fantastic community. Once you see the wonderful projects of this community, the moving achievements and the dedicated hardworking volunteers you won't be able to help but smile.

Dinner in Habana 61

Later that night we wanted to try a different ambience in the same neighbourhood of Barrio de Santo Angel. A more upbeat and exclusive dining place, Habana 61 looked just like the thing.

Sleek and edgy, we had passed it during the day on our tour around the area. It was closed at the time (it opens at noon and stays open well into the early hours – right until 6 am!). So small and narrow you might not notice it from the outside be it not for its dramatically modern and glassy exterior, with its large see-though windows offering a sneak-peek into the plush white leather seats. It, no doubt, clearly stands out against the rows of old colonial buildings, and for a good reason.

This is a fantastic place to come and mingle, socialise with a few drinks, enjoy the live music performances and take in the lively atmosphere. In fact we noticed that most of the clients here came to the long bar area more than the dining area. But don't let the vast array of cocktails and beverages here fool you into thinking they arethe only highlight of an evening at Habana 61. It is Chef Blanco in fact, the in-house chef, the most glowing gem and most loved person in this place.

The attentive staff will make you feel right at home from the moment you step in and you'll soon forget that you're in a glamorous place and think you're surrounded by family – it really is that charming! Pulsating with its lively colours and bright lights, this cool space is a great mood enhancer, and no doubt, if you choose to dine here, it will prove an appetite pleasing experience too. At the hands of Chef Blanco, you can expect tasty culinary delights.

The best thing is also the fact that the food is typically Cuban and when you taste it you can feel the love with which every dish has been put together. The presentation of dishes also shows a great attention to detail and the food is simply scrumptious. We asked for grilled fish and lobster with the addition of typical Cuban side dishes including fried and mashed yucca and a helping of rice and beans. Truly yummy!

To set the mood we also had mellow jazz rock in the background, and after the clock struck twelve, we were still enjoying drinks and feeling though as time had not passed. A truly relaxing and soothing experience.

An escape to the beach – Havana's Santa Maria

The day before our departure, with little to do and little left to be seen or experienced we decided to head to the beach. We didn't fancy driving for two hours to get to Varadero (stunning as it is) and we could settle for one of Havana's slightly less spectacular but equally beautiful beaches. So on we went to Santa Maria del Mar, just a short 30-minute drive from the city centre.

Empty sunbeds at Santa Maria Beach

We arrived there at around 11am and it was surprisingly empty, we were the first ones to arrive on the parking lot! To be honest, this is not such a big surprise as Cubans don't regard the winter months as beach-friendly, because of the sometimes choppy sea, winds and big surf. But to tourists this is heaven on earth – and it's not hard to see why. Empty beaches, isolated stretches of soft sands and plenty of sunshine –what more can you ask for?

Santa Maria Beach

We arrived and there was hardly a soul in sight. A man with a mask was doing some snorkelling before us and in the distance a couple of parasols could be seen. But we practically had the beach to ourselves for two hours. After that a few more people joined us, but they were few and far and between, most of them coming from the nearby hotel Tropicoco or coming in small groups of families.

Just next to us was a small hut where they served a variety of chilled alcoholic and soft drinks. Perfectly located just steps away from our towels, the hut was just the right distance from us to get the much needed refreshment.

When hunger struck, we only had to walk a few metres towards the parking lot and stop at the Mirazul Cafeteria, serving a good selection of light meals, hamburgers, sandwiches and snacks.

When it was time to head back to the beach, realising that this was our very last full day in paradise, we took the time to really absorb the beauty of the turquoise waters, the soothing sounds of the waves lapping ashore, the softness of the powdery sand between our toes and the clear blue skies stretching before us.

Our last lunch at Mediterraneo

On our very last day, just before we had to head back to the airport to catch our return flight to London, we had lunch at one of Vedado's newest privately owned restaurant, thus giving the perfect finish to our journey of discovery along Havana's blossoming private sector.

Mediterraneo Havana Bar Restaurant

With a nice location on a leafy residential street, right on Calle 13, between F and G streets, the Mediterrano Havana, as its names indicates offers a selection of Mediterranean dishes, with a focus on fresh pasta and seafood. Set in a former two-story private house this refreshing new venue has exterior decor reminiscent of an Italian trattoria or Greek taverna, especially in the outside seating areas, because of the furniture and the checked table covers.

Inside of Mediterraneo Havana Restaurant

Inside the setting is a little more refined and elegant, with a deep navy blue being the predominant colour contrasting against the white walls, white tablecloths and white napkins. On the second floor there is a well-stocked bar as well as charming roofed outdoor terrace with some more tables. Idyllic for taking in the afternoon breeze and eating out al fresco.

Because we were on a rush, we asked the waiter upon entering to deliver our food as fast as possible. Well, there were five of us and all courses were served within 30 minutes – that's what I called speed! It also helped that the restaurant wasn't super busy, with only two more tables to attend to, but still, 30 minutes for a three-course meal is pretty impressive! The only shame was that we didn't have time to linger and eat at a more leisurely pace, but there were some friends we wanted to say goodbye to before packing and heading for the airport, and we didn't want to rush it too much.

Dishes at Mediterraneo are inspired by traditional cuisine

What's so great about this restaurant, beyond the amazing service with such courteous and efficient waiters (nowhere else in the world have I been served so fast with a smile) is how each ingredient has been freshly sourced. As it says on their menu, you can ask your waiter and learn about the origin of every single dish, all made from fresh, natural sea-born and earth-born products. Meals are completely additive-free and dishes are inspired by traditional cuisine from Sardinia and Catalonia.

Mediterraneo's proper grilled beef steak

For starters we ordered a selection of dishes to share, with mixed croquettes, prawns wrapped in aubergines, and an octopus a la genovesa. All extremely, seductively delicious – finger-licking good! For seconds two of us had the beef lasagne, one went for the catch of the day (it was salmon), my husband opted for the grilled beef steak and I had the cotoletta a la Milanesa, which was basically chicken coated by a crispy batter.

Mediterranean tart with traditional Spanish natilla

Everything came hot, exuding an inviting aroma and tasting absolutely wonderful. For dessert (yes, there was still room – there's always room!) two of us had the flan of the house, my husband went for the orange cheesecake (I tried a piece and it was to die for!) and I chose the Mediterranean tart, a heavenly pie-like filled with traditional Spanish natilla (similar to custard) and topped by dried fruit and nuts – very rich but very nice!

We walked out of Mediterraneo with another broad smile after having more than satisfied our appetites. Yet another great example of Cuban entrepreneurship that works so much better than many government-owned established, and with the genuine service and friendly smile of locals that work for another local – a family-like environment but with a very professional attitude and an outstanding commitment to high quality standards. Next time you're in Havana you simply have to try it for yourself.

Susana Corona

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Discover Cuba with a fantastic twin centre holiday staying in historic Havana and idyllic Varadero

Discover Cuba with a fantastic twin centre holiday staying in historic Havana and idyllic Varadero

Create memories to last a lifetime on this fantastic holiday staying in deluxe hotels in both destinations

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Susana Corona

Cuba Expert

As a born and bred Cuban, I know and love Cuba with an undying passion, and on my frequent travels...

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