Category Archive for Caribbean
Cuba vintage car tour with Havana Urban Adventures! Renting a classic convertible, Callejon de Hamel Santeria.
When you think of Havana, Cuba — do classic cars come to mind? These sleek, 1950s-era automobiles are the only rides on the road in this fascinating country, where time seems to have frozen.
My dream was to ride down the Malecon in a vintage convertible… and this came true thanks to Havana Urban Adventures!
Urban Adventures offers one-of-a-kind, offbeat experiences in cities worldwide. These aren’t your typical tours; they’re small group or private adventures that let you dive deep into local life.
Read on to see how I cruised through Havana in this slick red “almendrón” (the Cuban word for antique auto)…
… and learned about Santeria (the Afro-Cuban religion of divine spirits), at the art-filled Callejon de Hamel.
(Photography by Asta Mail and me.)
In my first post about Cuba, I wrote about the joy of staying in a “casa particular” (Prado Colonial) and supporting local businesses. (You can read the full review here; definitely reach out if you’re looking for an authentic place to stay in Old Havana.)
When we made a booking with Urban Adventures, we received vouchers with confirmations of the start time, location, contact details and other info. In our case, the classic car came straight to our front door to pick us up for the 2 hour ride.
“Best day ever” is accurate, when it comes to their tours. As you may recall, I also linked up with Urban Adventures in Athens and Bucharest. I’m impressed by how their guides are always full of passion for their hometowns. In this case, Armando (Mandy) greeted us with a smile, and whisked us off on an adventure.
While the driver navigated, Mandy filled us in on the colorful sights around us. We rode through Habana Viejo and Miramar, where we glimpsed colonial architecture, monuments, and the glamorous Fifth Avenue. Such a joy to ride through these streets in an antique car, and soak it all in.
Our first stop: Plaza de la Revolución, or Revolution Square.
Behind me, you can see a memorial to Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the four leaders of the Cuban Revolution (along with Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara). Manny explained that “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine) refers to the supportive comment he made to the leader during his speech to the people.
Next to him is this iconic counterculture portrait. I’m sure you recognize the face of Che Guevara, the guerrilla revolutionary! Che’s slogan, “hasta la victoria siempre” (Until victory always), exemplifies how he always strove to the fullest in his quest to help the people of Latin America.
On the other side of Revolution Square rises José Martí Memorial. It’s a tribute to this 19th century national hero of Cuba, and consists of a statue of Marti, a star-shaped tower, and gardens.
Cuba has a fascinating political / cultural history that is unlike any other country (and very different from its neighbors in the Caribbean).
I was keen to learn more about the Communist takeover from a Cuban perspective, so I later visited the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion) in Old Havana. It’s filled with black and white photos of the leaders, and facts / records that may surprise you. I recommend it to all my fellow history buffs.
Onward to Vedado, a more modern and residential district of Havana. We drove through neighborhoods with beautiful homes, and then stopped in Havana Forest to take photos.
Asta and I were surprised to see this jungle area, in the middle of busy Havana! We took a moment to explore this lush park, featuring a river and waving trees.
Many Santeria practitioners come here to perform rituals in the stream, including animal sacrifices. Keep an open mind, and if you see worshipers dressed in white, don’t point a camera at them.
(There’s more on this Cuban religion further down in the post, so read on.)
We passed by the sprawling Colon Cemetery, founded in 1876 in the Vedado neighbourhood. Named after Christopher Columbus, there are over 500 mausoleums covering 140 acres. I’ll have to come back next time to walk through this impressive graveyard, packed with white tombstones.
There’s truly no better way to get into the spirit of Cuba than by taking an old American car tour. What’s the deal with these antique vehicles everywhere?
In 1959, Fidel Castro banned foreign vehicle imports, making it impossible to purchase cars from abroad. Since then, pretty much the only wheels on the road are remnants from this era, when American expats cruised through Havana in hot rods.
Our Urban Adventures vintage car tour ended with a drive along the Malecon, as the sun was setting. We sat in the back of our cherry red convertible, and took in the soft breeze and warm light…. pure Cuba bliss.
I loved spotting cars with space-age “tail fins”, a 1950s signature. So many classic American names on the road here: Chevy, Plymouth, Buick, Ford, Oldsmobile.
The Malecon is Cuba’s seawall, which wraps along the coast for 8 km (from Old to Central Havana, and ending in Vedado). You’ll see locals hanging out on the stone wall at all hours, but the scene is most beautiful at sunset.
We ended the journey at The Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It’s a grand, historic hotel that was the favorite of 1930s American gangsters, famous crooners, and silver screen stars.
Inside, we looked at a display that celebrated National Hotel’s most famous guests, including Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outerspace (who met Castro in 1961, and was celebrated in Cuba). Such a cool spot to drink a Mojito and reflect on the old days.
I think these photos say it all… Urban Adventures’ vintage car tour is the sweetest way to explore the neighborhoods of Havana! More info here on how you can book a ride with them in an antique American convertible. (You can even put in a request for a specific car color.)
Asta and I loved our Urban Adventures tour so much that we did another the next day. We met guide Yanet for the Afro-Cuban religions tour, which let us explore Santeria and the local spirituality. As always, our experienced guide enabled us to get insider access to a subculture.
The journey takes place at Callejón de Hamel, a hub filled with alleyways of bright murals and sculptures. The artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, began this project in 1990 to renew the surrounding neighborhood, and create a space for the Santeria community.
We admired the colorful paintings by Salvador, mixed in with works made from scrap objects like bathtubs, pinwheels and mechanical tools. The eclectic vibe reminded me of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
I wore a rainbow-witch outfit that day. You can find many of my clothes for sale here on Depop; contact me if I can send you anything from my personal wardrobe!
Our guide, Yanet, explained the installations and spoke about the roots of Santeria. This Afro-Cuban religion has origins in the native spirituality of Africa, and became syncretized with Catholicism during colonial times (when slaves were brought to the New World).
Cuba’s spiritual practices are a mix of local customs, folklore, and beliefs from various sources. Some people mistakenly associate Santeria with voodoo, but these two are very different (voudou is a syncretic religion practiced mainly in Haiti.)
Callejon de Hamel is free for anyone to visit. It’s hard to imagine that this once was a sketchy, desolate area: Salvador has transformed it into an inviting, positive space. You can often catch musicians and rumba dancers performing in these alleys.
Yanet taught us about the orishas, or gods of the Santeria pantheon. One of my favorites is Elegua (on the left), represented as a playful child or old man. Visitors leave Cuban cigars in his mouth to keep this trickster happy.
There’s also a god of war (Changó), goddess of love (Oshún), a mother figure (Yemayá), a hunter (Ochosi), healer (Babalú Ayé) and more.
Santeria translates to “worship of the saints,” as there is a creator god and a number of lesser deities. These orishas rule over various aspects of human nature and endeavor, and you can call upon them depending on your particular situation.
When the colonialists shipped Africans to the Caribbean to work as slaves, they also baptized them as Catholics and banned their tribal faiths. However, the Africans still worshiped their orishas in secret, by associating them with Christian saints like St. Christopher. Santeria therefore developed as a unique syncretism.
We met a babalawo, or priest. His role is to be a spiritual adviser, and help people in various ways — including by fortune-telling with the tossing of shells.
Urban Adventures has special permission to enter the home of Salvador (the artist) and his family. We got to see their personal shrines to the orishas, where they make offerings of food, and bow in a way that touches each elbow to the ground.
In Santeria, each practitioner is associated with one protector deity (which you determine through ritual and the advice of the babalawo). This family member’s orisha is Yemaya, the fierce mother of the seas — hence the blue decorations, shells, fish and other objects related to her.
These personal shrines stay with them their entire lives. When Iku (the deity of death) arrives, the babalawo consults the spirits to find out what to do with the objects (burn them, bury them, etc).
We loved learning about Cuban spirituality and culture up-close. If you simply walk through the streets of Old Havana, you’ll come across colorful aspects — like this costumed parade of stilt-walkers.
The colonial legacy is everywhere to be seen, especially in the dramatic architecture and tall doorways.
Havana is a safe city, and “chill” is the best word to describe the residents. You’ll see locals hanging out on doorsteps, and chatting with their neighbors.
Headwraps and bright clothing are a common sight.
I came across a fortune teller, clad in white and with strands of beads draped around her neck.
Havana is also associated with author Ernest Hemingway, who lived here from about 1940-60. Many tourists visit his favorite bars, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, where he drank daiquiris and mojitos. (I didn’t visit, as I was more interested in seeing the romantic gardens all around Havana.)
We ran into more street art by Yulier Rodriguez. His provocative, signature style is unmistakable.
How fitting to find a motorcycle, in front of this mural of Che Guevara! When he was a young medical student, Che rode 5000 miles through South America (as documented in his book “The Motorcycle Diaries.”) The journey opened his eyes, and stirred his dream of seeing a united Latin America.
On the right, we see “Estudio, Trabajo, Fusil” (Study, Work, Rifle), the motto of Cuba’s Communist Youth Union.
It was interesting to learn the Cuban point-of-view of historical events and figures. They highlighted achievements such as the excellent medical and educational system, which is open to all Cubans regardless of their income.
Without doubt, Havana is a city of music and color! Where else can you pay 2 CUC ($2) for a mojito, and enjoy an energetic rumba?
These silly boys welcomed us back to our casa particular, Prado Colonial. I’m all about supporting small local businesses, and staying with a casa is one of the easiest ways to do so. (More info and photos of our hotel here.)
Gracias Havana Urban Adventures for making my “greased lightning” goals a reality! If only I could take this classic auto home as a souvenir…
Have you been to Cuba? Planning a trip? Feel free to leave a comment if I can help you with travel tips, and I’ll gladly reply.
Casa de Campo Villas: Caribbean luxury vacation rentals! Catalina Island, Minitas beach, spa & resort activities.
Coming at you… from my rock star villa in the Dominican Republic! I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to move in.
In my first post, I introduced you to the elegant Casa de Campo resort. We’ll kick things up yet another level: with a look at their tropical villas for rent, and activities including skeet shooting and horseback riding!
We’ll also bask in the white sand and waves of Minitas Beach and Catalina Island, aka paradise on Earth.
Casa de Campo is in located in La Romana, which is considered the most exclusive and beautiful area in the country. Quite a few celebrities own mansions or vacation here regularly; perhaps you might recognize the names Drake, Beyonce, J-Lo, A-Rod, Jay-Z.
When you step into this backyard of dreams, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it’s obvious why this is an A-list destination.
Casa de Campo has multiple Oceanfront Villas available for rent. They each have bright bedrooms filled with modern decor, and a state-of-the-art kitchen.
The star of the show, however, is the long outdoor pool flanked by a luxurious gazebo.
I could laze in this open-air lounge all day, reading a sci-fi novel. The space is airy thanks to the peaked roof and ceiling fans.
CDC’s villas are decorated in muted Caribbean colors, which match the elegant natural surroundings. The wicker furniture is accentuated by local crafts and glasswork.
Photographer Molly Weingart and I daydreamed about living here in style.
As villa guests, we’d have access to maid and butler services, and a culinary staff that prepares daily breakfast in the kitchen.
The most difficult decision you’d have to make is whether to dip into the swimming pool, the Caribbean sea…
Or the pod-like hot tub next to the bedroom patio.
We’d never get bored indoors, with these pop-modern rooms. The villas are equipped with a sauna, full gym, and private cinema with theater seating.
“Scarface” vibes, in the central living room that is set up to entertain guests.
Molly and I loved the artistic details that make each villa unique. This handcrafted mahogany bench and rainbow canvas formed the perfect photo backdrop.
Casa de Campo makes the most of the Dominican Republic’s tropical beauty. They also offer Garden Villas for rent, with lush natural surroundings as well as a swimming pool.
Although you’ll feel like a millionaire, the villa rentals are actually quite affordable compared to others in the area (especially when split among a group of friends). Many guests rent a villa for Christmas and New Year’s, hen getaways, or other occasions.
(If these photos make you keen to move in, there’s more info on Casa de Campo’s site.)
As guests of the resort, we had full access to “fun in the sun” activities — ranging from water sports to outdoor massages. Since Casa de Campo is a huge resort (at 7000 acres), we never ran out of options for activities, many of which are included in the package experience.
The Dominican Republic is known for its pristine beaches. One of the best is Playa Minitas, Casa de Campo’s private beach. We drove here in our personal golf cart, and found ourselves on a quiet stretch of soft white sand.
At Minitas Beach, guests can try activities like snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding or windsurfing in these gentle waves.
Molly and I couldn’t wait to wade into these clean, warm waters. This, right here, is my happy place.
I’ve visited beautiful beaches worldwide (Maldives, Bali, Maui), and Minitas Beach ranks among the best I’ve ever experienced. Unlike other places in the Dominican Republic, this is an uncrowded and meticulously maintained spot.
Casa de Campo offers free towel service at the entrance, and plenty of amenities including change rooms, several bars, and Minitas Beach Club restaurant (which we reviewed in this post).
(I’m wearing a skeleton swimsuit; similar one here).
We alternated between dips in the crystal-clear waters, and lounging on the comfortable chaises under the shade of palm trees.
There weren’t many tourists around, which let us feel as if were in our own Blue Lagoon.
If you stay until the sun sets, you’ll get this spectacular light show over the horizon.
We watched the sunset, while sipping their famous piña coladas served in a fresh, local pineapple…
I have to admit, I love being a “beach Goth” every so often!
Quite a few people recommended that we visit Catalina Island, and we were glad we took their advice. To get here, ask the Casa de Campo staff to help you make an advance booking for the catamaran ride. The boat departs from Minitas Beach and takes 25 minutes — and it’s a fast and furious ride that made us smile.
We disembarked onto six square miles of beach paradise. No photo filters needed: the turquoise hues and perfectly clear waters are exactly what you get in real life.
Catalina Island is part of the Parque Nacional del Este, which preserves the diverse ecosystem that includes sand-dunes, mangroves, and reefs.
If you’re a snorkeler, take a short swim from the pier, and you’ll find calm waters teeming with sea life.
Relaxing on Catalina Island turned out to be one of the best moments of our trip to the DR.
You may recall that we ate like queens at Casa de Campo, from sushi fusion to rustic Italian. To balance it out, we spent time in the fitness center, which has a large selection of weights and machines.
Guests can also book a private training session, or visit the physiotherapy center. Molly did a functional class with David, and says: “I went to the workout tired, but left feeling energized. David did a great job of assessing my strength. When he realized that I could do more than he had originally intended to give me in the workout, he adjusted it workout accordingly — all with a smile. I even got to learn how to say some of the exercises in Spanish!”
The resort also has regularly scheduled group fitness classes like Pilates, Zumba, Saco Box, Spinning, and aerobics. We woke up for the 8:30am Pilates class, and it was absolutely worth it.
Molly’s reaction: “Liliam was such a magical teacher. I felt like she saw my heart, and then just made my abs work hard! One of the things that I really enjoyed about her (and David, and fitness at Casa de Campo in general) was that there was a focus on wellness, so progressing an injury to advanced athletic performance could be done in one class. She exemplified this completely, as she took the extra time to show us those stretching machines that released the back.”
The Spa was another place to rejuvenate both body and mind. Casa de Campo’s spa uses traditional techniques and local, organic ingredients in their menu of treatments.
Molly booked the Signature Ayurvedic massage. She says, “Alexandra, the woman who took care of me, touched me with such kindness and knowledge that the 90 minutes drifted by. I’ve been suffering from a pretty serious injury and she did a great job of handling the tension around the muscles to release some of the pain.”
I agree with her words that “The staff at Casa de Campo was spectacular. That’s an understatement. They made you feel like you were at home with friends you just hadn’t met yet. From checking in with Victor, to the bartenders who recommended we go to Catalina Island, and servers who pushed me to speak more Spanish… everyone just wanted to make us more comfortable and help us explore.”
The all-inclusive package includes horseback riding. I was excited to get on a horse for the first time in over a decade.
The horses are extremely well-trained, and will never dart off or disobey commands. We explored the ranch’s lush pathways, by walk and trot.
I also got to try skeet shooting for the first time. The all-inclusive package includes 25 shots; it’s nice how CDC encourages guests to experience new sports and activities that they wouldn’t otherwise do on their own.
Our instructor was a kind, detail-oriented teacher who made us feel we were in safe hands. He patiently showed us how to use the two-barrel gun, which could hold two shots before requiring a re-load.
Skeet shooting means hitting clay targets that fly in the air. By pressing a button, he launched these disks from fixed stations, at a variety of angles and speeds.
I discovered that I’m surprisingly good at hitting clay pigeons. I credit this to my many hours of playing “Duck Hunt” on the original Nintendo console… the 1980s video game is remarkably good at mimicking the actual experience of skeet shooting!
Don’t mess with travel bloggers. They learn skills on the job.
I’ve shot rifles in indoor gun ranges before, and didn’t enjoy the experience much. However, an outdoor shooting center is a different story. Molly and I appreciated getting to know the history and skill of the sport, at one of the biggest centers in the Caribbean.
If you’re a golf fan, then you might already know of Casa de Campo. The resort has three of the best golf courses in the Caribbean, if not the world: Teeth of the Dog, Dye Four, and The Links. We saw groups of golf buddies renting a villa together, and swinging their clubs in this postcard-perfect setting.
A big heart for Casa de Campo — Molly and I couldn’t have had a better time in the Dominican Republic! Everything about the resort was as pristine as these waters, and the staff deserves a special mention for their kindness.
If these photos are convincing you to fly off to this beach, check out more info on CDC’s website.
Havana, Cuba local travel guide! Luxury casa particular Prado Colonial & Hostal del Angel review, Cuban cooking lessons.
Let’s do the time warp again… from Havana, Cuba!
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been curious about this Caribbean country where time seems to stand still. While on a job in the Dominican Republic, I took the opportunity to hop over to “La Habana” for a few days.
How to enter Cuba: As a Canadian, I merely had to fill out a “visa on arrival” and pay $20 US cash. If you have a US passport, the process is more complicated and changes constantly… be sure to check the current Cuban visa requirements here. Or you can “secretly” fly in from another country (Canada, Mexico, Panama, etc), as Americans have in the past.
Where should you stay in Havana? If you’re looking for a local, authentic experience, there’s only one answer: in a casa particular like Prado Colonial!
As you likely know, Cuba has been a communist country since Fidel Castro overthrew military dictator Batista in 1959. As a result, all the hotels and resorts are at least partly owned / run by the government.
However, since 1997, the state has allowed locals to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. These “casas particulares” are independent, family-run bed and breakfasts. There’s no better way for travelers to support Cubans, and learn first-hand about their culture — while staying in a friendly, homey environment.
I love boutique, design accommodations, which is why Prado Colonial caught my eye. This is a group of three B&Bs, run by a family and located within walking distance of each other, in Old Havana.
My friend Asta and I stayed in their Hostal del Angel, which is a vintage-lover’s dream. The stained glass windows and chandeliers scatter rainbows over neoclassical floor tiles… And the French doors open to a balcony view of Old Havana!
I looked out at this view of Plazuela de Santo Ángel, a cheerful plaza by the yellow church of Santo Angel Custodio. This spot inspired Cuban author Cirilo Villaverde to write his famous novel “Cecilia Valdés,” so there’s a statue of both of them here.
Address of Hostal del Angel: Cuarteles 118, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
“Casa particular” means “private house,” and “hostal” is the Spanish word for a family-run b & b. Don’t mistake it for “hostel” (dorm-style living) — we had private rooms with their own bathrooms, and common areas fit for a queen.
When we first entered Hostal del Ángel, we were greeted by Ali, the lady who lives here and takes care of guests. The next morning, we met Marina, the manager for all three properties (you can glimpse her in the mirror!). She’s warm and radiant, and puts her heart into helping guests feel at home.
Marina is fluent in English, and takes care of everything including restaurant recommendations, reservations, and taxi hires. She’s always happy to answer questions and help guests make their most of their visit.
All of the Prado Colonial casas feel like family homes, with walls of portraits. We enjoyed feeling as if were in the care of Christian, Kenia and their two daughters, who own these places. The family spends most of the year in Germany, so they rent out these accommodations to travelers while they are away.
Asta and I looked forward to waking up each morning for the tasty breakfast. We sat down to a huge spread of fresh tropical fruit and juice, Cuban coffee (which is delicious!), cheese and cold cuts, homemade marmalades, and eggs made to order.
Some casa particulars can be on the sparse side. This is not the case at Hostal del Ángel: just look at our luxurious suite, dressed in Imperial and Louis XV style furniture and mirrors! The two adjoining rooms are separated by French doors, and we had our own large bathroom.
All of their rooms have air conditioning, a safe, plenty of towels and other amenities. In Cuba, you must purchase a WiFi card in order to access the Internet (as this is not a regular service) — but I actually enjoyed being “off the grid” for my stay.
We couldn’t have picked a better home base. All of the Prado Colonial bed and breakfasts are in Old Havana, near major sights like the Museum of the Revolution. The interiors are classic Cuban, the ladies provide outstanding service… and yet, their room prices start at only 85 CUC (US $85) a night.
Asta and I loved the cultural immersion of a casa particular. We encourage you to support Cuban families and their independent businesses, by staying in one.
(You can also help out by bringing donation items to Cuba, such as USB sticks, stockings, school supplies, beauty products and other small gifts that are difficult for locals to get. I brought bags of items, and let the staff distribute them.)
You can make a reservation at any of the three Prado Colonial hotels here, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org — I can assure you that you’ll be in great hands with this family.
Marina gave us tour of the neighborhood, and pointed out her favorite cafes. Old Havana is in the heart of the action; just step out the door, and there are a million sights to see.
Around the corner from our casa particular, we ran into this Cuban boy band doing a photoshoot. They invited me to join in — why not!
Marina manages all the family’s hotels, which are within a few minutes walk of each other — so we also stopped by Casa Prado Colonial. No wonder these are the best casa particulars in Old Havana; check out this rooftop view!
Prado Colonial also has a classic Cuban vibe. The interiors make you feel as if you’ve entered a past era (but everything is spotlessly maintained).
Address: Prado 110, Ground Floor, between Genio and Refugio. Havana Vieja. Ciudad de La Habana. ZIP: 10100. Cuba.
Unlike cookie-cutter hotels, each of Prado Colonial’s rooms has a unique decor and personality. It’s hard to “feel blue” when you’re surrounded by Art Deco furniture and floral paintings! (My backpack is Spiral UK, similar to this one.)
We’ll later meet Marina for dinner and a cooking lesson, at the third property. But for now, it’s time to explore Havana.
First stop: the Malecón, which is only a short walk away from PradoColonial. This is Havana’s iconic seawall and roadway, which stretches for 8 km (5 miles) along the waterfront.
With a cool breeze and view like this, it’s easy to understand why the Malecon is a favorite spot to for locals to hang out. You’ll see groups of friends playing music, having snacks, fishing, or simply enjoying the view of the water.
Havana’s rich history (from colonial days to Communism and the embargo) is especially visible the old quarters of the city. Even in the 21st century, the laid-back Caribbean culture has a 1950s / 1960s vibe.
You’ll find classic cars zooming around the city. The US has banned car exports to Cuba since 1955, which is why all these “coches Americanos” are from the James Dean era.
(Photos by Asta Mail and La Carmina)
Havana’s colonial architecture is a mix of Moorish and Spanish styles, along with influences from the French, Italians and Greeks. The bright hot rods match the pastel buildings, with swirling iron rails and ornamented arches.
Cuba is also known for its cigars. I’m not a fan, but this fellow seemed to enjoy puffing on his pipe.
We came across local street art by Yulier Rodriguez. He paints ghostly, alien-like faces on dilapidated buildings throughout Havana.
Leave it to me to find a skull wherever I go.
Yulier’s murals tend to be social commentaries on life in Cuba. (In the next post, we’ll show you more art at Callejon de Hamel, the Afro-Cuban santeria community.)
Havana is a city made for walking. It’s nice to see “slices of life,” such as children in uniform heading to school. (Cuba’s health care and education are excellent for all residents, regardless of their income.)
Now that we worked up an appetite, it was time for our Cuban cooking lesson at Habana 101 (the third hotel), which any guest can request. Marina greeted us dressed all in white, with fabulous heels!
We learned how to make ropas viejas, one of Cuba’s most beloved nation dishes. The term means “old rags,” which describes the look of the shredded beef and seasoned vegetables.
We started on the roof terrace, and took in the sunset over Old Havana. Marina prepared us one of her famous mojitos, with fresh mint and a touch of honey. She also let us try the anise flavored Mulata De Cuba liqueur in a cocktail.
I try to take cooking lessons wherever I go, as it’s one of the best ways to learn about local food. Marina and the ladies were the perfect teachers. (I’m wearing the “Grillmeister” apron that belongs to home-owner Christian.)
The ladies had prepped all the ingredients — slow-cooked flank, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and spices. Time to head into the kitchen and learn how to make several flavorful Cuban dishes.
We satiated our hunger by snacking on freshly fried taro root chips. I was tempted to eat the whole plate!
Marina showed us how to use a rice cooker to prepare rice and beans, with lots of diced vegetables and spices. We wound up with a healthy, gluten-free and inexpensive meal that I could eat every day.
Talk about cute food: the staff put together a salad that spelled out Hab 101!
We learned how to make various Cuban staples, including fried green and yellow bananas.
I’m so glad we decided to stay in a casa particular. We got to learn about daily life in Cuba from locals, while preparing one of the best meals I’ve had this year.
(Find more about Prado Colonial here.)
For dessert: guava simmered with a bit of sugar, and topped with German cheese. Who knew this combination could be so good.
We all sat down together for this incredible meal — I ate until I was stuffed!
Many people told me that when they visited Cuba, they found the food was bland and unseasoned. This was not at all the case for me — every meal was delicious, even from random cafes. I’m not sure if we got lucky or the cuisine has improved. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with a home-cooked meal at your casa particular.
On another night, we dined at La Guarida, one of the most famous and highly rated restaurants in Havana.
In 1993, Cuba released a groundbreaking LGBT film called “Strawberry and Chocolate.” Much of the story takes place in this elegant location. In homage, La Guarida showcases some of the original props, and named its signature dessert after the movie.
La Guarida restaurant address: 418 Concordia, La Habana, Cuba.
La Guarida is a “paladar,” or privately owned Cuban restaurant. Similar to casas particulares, these restaurants are run by locals rather than the state. Paladars tend to have beautiful, intimate settings (just check out this balcony!) and amazing food.
At La Guarida, the “new Cuban” cuisine lives up to the open-air atmosphere. Our server presented us with Cuban rum cocktails, and a special corn soup and “sushi” roll appetizer. Then, we feasted on braised beef cheek, and medallions of filet mignon served three ways (peppercorn, Béarnaise, and a chocolate and blue cheese — surprisingly, the best one).
Don’t miss out on the rooftop bar. Walk up a winding staircase in what looks like a pneumatic tube, and you’ll end up on this ornate floor.
From the top of La Guarida, you can look out at the lights of central Havana, and the blue Malecon in the distance.
Once again, we felt transported back in time, to the days of grand colonial mansions.
La Guarida lives up to its hype as one of Havana’s top restaurants. Be sure to order the smoked marlin tacos, and delicate snapper ceviche that melts in your mouth.
I recommend that you make an advance online reservation from the La Guarida website, as tables fill out quickly. Both locals and visitors choose this spot for a dinner to remember.
Did this intro to Havana make you smile? If you have any questions about traveling here, you’re welcome to leave a comment.
I hope you’ll support locals and stay at one of Prado Colonial’s casa particulars; you can learn more and make a booking through the family’s website.
My trip to Cuba felt a little like visiting another planet — which is what I love best about travel. I think this ET mural sums up the inspiration I found on every street in Old Havana.
Stay tuned for another post to come… about our joyride in a cherry red vintage convertible!
Casa de Campo resort review: our luxurious Dominican Republic hotel! La Romana all-inclusive, restaurants.
Winter… what’s that? In early January, I escaped the cold by travelling to Casa de Campo Resort & Villas in the Dominican Republic!
With 7000 acres of palm trees, warm beaches, a marina, golf courses and activities — it’s easy to see why Casa de Campo is one of the Leading Hotels of the World.
My photographer and long-time friend Molly Weingart accompanied me to the Dominican Republic. We wanted to be surprised, so we didn’t do much research beforehand… and our jaws dropped when we saw this exquisite property. Casa de Campo isn’t your typical all-inclusive; it’s the most beautiful and luxurious resort on the island.
How to get here: Casa de Campo is a resort and community located in La Romana, on the southeast coast of the DR. Most international flights land at Punta Cana or Santo Domingo airport. From there, you can either take another short flight to La Romana airport, or have the hotel pick you up (the drive is about an hour long).
Casa de Campo address: Carretera La Romana – Higuey, La Romana 22000, Dominican Republic
Casa de Campo was established in 1974, but recent renovations have modernized the buildings with an airy, warm Caribbean feel.
From the moment we arrived, we were in love with the peaceful, authentic feeling of this five-star resort. There’s nothing “touristy” or “Americanized” about the experience. Molly instantly bonded with the staff, who chatted with her in Spanish, and were always a step ahead of our needs.
Casa de Campo has a variety of rooms to choose from. Our home base was this spacious suite, with our own patio overlooking the tropical grounds.
(CDC has private villas for rent too. In the next post, we’ll give you a glimpse of this rock-star living.)
As a “Mario Kart” fan, I was tickled to learn that every guest received a personal golf cart! Molly and I had our own little 4-passenger mini car, marked with our room number. This way, we could easily get from place to place (remember, the grounds span thousands of acres).
The carts also make sense because Casa de Campo is hands-down the best golf resort in the country, with three award-winning Pete Dye courses including “Teeth of the Dog.”
It was quite the adventure to learn how to put the golf cart in reverse, turn on the lights, and avoid oncoming traffic. For the safety of everyone on the resort, I let Molly do the driving!
We went to the Dominican Republic in January, the pleasantly warm and dry season. The east coast storm brought brief rainshowers, but these let up quickly by the afternoons.
Even if it’s raining, there’s plenty to do indoors. Our comfortable room had fast wifi, a flat screen TV, and giant bathroom with a separate dressing room. I loved spending time soaking in the bathtub, which came with L’Occitane bath products including an effervescent cube.
There’s also the option of going shopping. Casa de Campo’s lobby opens up into a courtyard with several fashion boutiques. We loved the colorful selection of designer resort wear, and were tempted to get jelly spiked platform shoes by Carmen Sol. (She also makes the studded sandals below.)
Here’s another look at my “tropical Goth” outfit, perfect for a relaxing getaway in the Caribbean.
The sun is out — time to explore! Casa de Campo’s all inclusive package is a stellar deal, especially if you’re a foodie and enjoy trying new activities.
With this package, guests get full unlimited access to the amenities including the swimming pools, fitness center, bars, and seven restaurants. You also get to experience horseback riding, skeet shooting, tennis and water sports (we’ll show you the fun we had, in the next post!)
Can’t go wrong with the main pool deck, featuring modern cabanas and an in-water bar. The resort’s guests were very respectful (you won’t encounter rowdy guys or noisy children), and you can always find a secluded spot to lounge.
Casa de Campo’s common areas are also beautifully designed. High ceilings, rich mahogany and native stone create a relaxing tropical vibe.
So many lounge areas to choose from! But first, a cocktail please.
The bar at La Caña is located in the main area of the resort, with both indoor and outdoor seating. The friendly bartenders quickly get to know you by name, and prepare your favorite drink with a generous pour.
La Cana bar is a popular gathering spot for guests, who come to watch the game on the big screen, dance to live music, or simply hang out on the L-shaped couches. Molly and I would often come here to grab a snack or drink, and chat with our favorite bartenders.
The Dominican Republic is known for its fruit and rum (Brugal, Barcelo, and Bermudez are local favorites). I combined these in the perfect tropical drink: freshly blended pineapple juice, with Ron Bermudez Aniversario dark rum! I also recommend their special “Coco Chanel” cocktail, a scrumptious mix of coconut puree, lime juice, white rum and black pepper.
On the right: the bartenders also brew up an addictive latte with perfect froth, served with home-baked cookies.
Unlike typical resorts, the dining at Casa de Campo is at a consistent high level. I got my “fish fix” at La Cana restaurant, and ordered Nicoise salad, grouper, and sea bass. All were prepared beautifully with Mediterranean flair.
I’m usually not a fan of buffets. However, once again, Casa de Campo reversed my expectations. Lago Restaurant served up probably the best lunch buffet I’ve ever had, with dozens of Dominican dishes to choose from.
You could have mahi mahi, chicken, and steak grilled up fresh — or choose from these bright Caribbean salads. Or try a bit of everything, as I did. The creamed pumpkin, sweet potato mash, coconut fish, and roast chicken… I’m still thinking of this meal today!
On the left, a snap of my pigeon beans and rice, chayote, avocado, and grill selections. We ended with tea and a selection of fruit and desserts; as you can see, I have a passion for passionfruit.
Too stuffed to drive? Thankfully, the hotel bellmen can give you a lift any time. We discovered it’s especially fun to ride on the backseat of a golf cart when you’re a little tipsy!
We carted to the resort’s newest addition, Minitas Beach Club. It’s located right by the ocean, and features an open-air bar with minimal lines.
Molly and I immediately took off our shoes to wade in the 23 meter infinity pool. I love the modern, upscale design of the pool deck and lounge areas.
Minitas Beach Club also encompasses a casual oceanside restaurant. We sat down to panoramic views of the sand and waves, and sipped on rum with coconut cream. (Don’t you feel relaxed, just looking at this?)
Minitas Beach Club Restaurant has a menu inspired by Mediterranean and Latin American cuisines. To match this casual beachfront, there’s an extensive selection of fish served light, clean and bright — as well as a selection of vegan and gluten-free options.
We dined on arepas, fried plantains, ceviche, and burrata. A pleasure to listen to the sounds of the ocean, while dining on colorful salads and vegetable dishes.
As you can see, there are so many different areas to explore in Casa de Campo. The community also includes The Marina, where you’ll find multi-million dollar yachts bobbing in the water. It’s a charming area with art galleries, boutiques and restaurants amidst cobblestone paths.
After window-shopping at The Marina, we went to Pubbelly Sushi for what Molly calls the best sushi of her life. (She’s planning to visit Miami, just so she can eat at their original location!) She says, “I thought they did a great job of respecting traditional dishes while playing with the creativity allowed in modern cuisine” — and I wholeheartedly agree.
Our waiter, Cezar, suggested innovative dishes such as the Tuna Pizza (with crispy tortilla, garlic aioli, and truffle oil), short ribs gyoza, and Tigueraso sushi (shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, avocado). We were delighted by unexpected combinations like dates with chorizo, and brussel sprouts with miso.
Be sure to order the unique cocktails, made with Japanese spirits like umeshu, sake framboise and vodka-sake. And leave room for the berries and cream dessert of dreams.
We walked off the meal with a stroll in the Marina, and came across this metal statue. Molly’s red dress made her the perfect dance partner for the bull.
On another evening, we revisited The Marina to dine at La Casita, a Spanish fine dining establishment. (As you’ll recall, all these stunning restaurants are part of the Casa de Campo all-inclusive pack. The concierges are great at making reservations for all their guests.)
Casa de Campo is an elegant resort, and it inspired us to dress the part. We noticed that guests tend to be from European or Spanish-speaking countries, and are very stylish (I saw some beautiful jewelry, handbags and resort-wear!)
At La Casita, we ordered passionfruit rum cocktails, followed by sangria with fresh fruit. What a treat to sip these drinks under tall sail-like callings, while yachts pass by in background.
It was easy to choose our main course: seafood paella. The servers plated this beautiful mix of Spanish saffron rice and seafood at our table, and we finished up every last grain.
As we dined al-fresco, we got a visit from some furry friends. It looks like the cats want a piece of shrimp!
Finally, we rode our golf carts to Altos de Chavón, and found ourselves in a re-created 16th century Mediterranean village. This project as conceived by Dominican architect, Jose Antonio Caro, and Italian designer / cinematographer Roberto Coppa.
The quaint village includes a 5000-seat Grecian-style amphitheater that has held performances by Andrea Bocelli, Julio Iglesias, Sting and Carlos Santana.
Altos de Chavón is a cultural center that lets guests meet artists from all over the world. In the daytime, you can pop into studios dedicated to pottery, weaving, silk screening and other media. The village is also home to the Altos de Chavón School of Design, which is affiliated with Parsons in New York.
At night, St. Stanislaus Church glows next to sweeping views of Chavón River.
Since Altos de Chavón has a Mediterranean feel, it was fitting that we had dinner at this rustic Italian restaurant, La Piazzetta.
We entered what looked like a home in the Italian countryside, lit with candles. This sweet trio serenaded us with traditional songs, while we eyed the antipasti bar and handmade pastas.
Red wine, creamy black truffle risotto, and green pea ravioli with Parmesan… what else does one need in life? La Piazzetta’s flavors are as lovely as anything I’ve had in Italy; in fact, this was the best pasta and risotto I’ve had in a while.
We continued with filet mignon and truffles, and melt-in-your-mouth tiramisu. Trust us, Casa de Campo’s dining is outstanding and will satisfy even the most jaded foodie.
Back to La Cana bar for a nightcap, and some dancing! Every night, Casa de Campo brings in live music to the lounge. Singer Daniel Castro Arias showed us how to dance the bachata (a style of dance from the Dominican Republic).
The atmosphere got lively as more guests took to the dance floor. We watched them sing their hearts out to Toño Rosario – Dale Vieja Dale, while hopping back and forth — a memory that will always make us smile!
Casa de Campo was the perfect winter getaway to the Dominican Republic. The resort exceeded our expectations in every way, with world-class food and amenities in a picture-perfect setting. Now that I’m back in cold weather, I’m keen to return to the tropics as soon as I can.
PS: this is only Part 1 of our Caribbean adventures; stay tuned for the next story featuring the beaches and activities.