Cuban Dining…Good Without Excitement

The food in Cuba was good, but void of the heat and spices I enjoy so much.  Actually, I would venture to say that had I stayed there for a few more days, I might have grown a bit bored with the cuisine.  While the Cubans tend to be conservative when it comes to experimenting with ingredients and flavors, the local produce is fresh and usually organic. And the chicken, rice and beans, a national staple, were perfectly prepared each time I had it.

Also, there were days in a row where I had delicious lobster for lunch and dinner, so I am not really complaining.

With the new ripple of paladars and privately-owned restaurants popping up, I look forward to a little more excitement in their culinary growth. 

Dining in Havana

Lamb in Vinales

Lobster in Vinales

Lobster in Havana

Pumpkin Soup in Havana

Chicken Sandwich at a Rest Stop in Pinar del Rio

Ceviche in Varadero

Chicken in Special Sauce at El Aljibe

Flan in Vinales

Dining in Vinales

Havana, Here We Come!

After months of planning and preparation for our trip to Cuba, the time had finally come!  We spent the first evening in Miami at the Sofitel Hotel, as our flight the next day was an 8:30am departure and we were told to arrive at the airport 3 hours in advance.  The Sofitel Hotel is a few minutes from MIA, offers a free airport shuttle pick-up every 30 minutes,  has nice rooms and a couple of nice dining options. It was just perfect for our overnight stay.

The next morning, we met in the lobby at 4:45am for our 5am shuttle.  We arrived at the airport, met with the Cuba Travel Services represenatative, picked up our Visas, roundtrip plane tickets and boarding passes, checked our bags (yes, I had to check a bag for the first time in ages!) because the weight exception is very light and very strict, paid our $25 entry/departure fee,  and waited patiently to board our non-stop 45 minute flight to Havana.  The process of submitting our itinerary and obtaining our special travel visas was a much smoother process than we imagined. 

We boarded our Sun Country charter flight, and departed on time. No sooner than we took off, we landed.  It was a sunny, hot day in Havana.  The airport was bustling with tourists, divers, people-to-people groups, clergy, families, officials and other workers.  It was exciting, festive. After quickly clearing customs and retrieving our luggage, we headed outside the airport and were greeted by our waiting minivan driver, then off on our 20 minute ride to our first stop, Hotel Palacio O’Farril in Habana Vieja.  We were hours early for the 4pm check-in, and the hotel, like almost every hotel in the city, was full, as Pope Francis was on the island for another couple of days.  We checked in, left our bags, and went in search of an early lunch.  The hotel doorman, Clemente, not only suggested a place for us to go for lunch, he walked us two blocks to El Zaguan restaurant.

We were the only customers in the restaurant.  It was only 11:45ish. I went in  thinking I’d start off my visit with a Cuban sandwich.  After seeing the menu, I opted for “Lobster Tropical”.  Great choice!  It was paired with pumpkin soup, rice, black beans, plantains and Cristal beer.  Dessert was flan and Habana Club rum.  All for about $20.(we had to pay for everything in Cuban Pesos, of course.)

Now, off  to walk around Habana Vieja before settling into our Habana home for the next 2 nights.  We are so looking forward to the week ahead.

In Antigua…Early To Bed, Early To Rise…And Shirley Heights

The ladies and I are night owls.  We wake early, work long days into the evening, then begin to unwind pretty late at night.  Well, not in Antigua!  We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and learned that we had until Saturday at midnight, then Sunday until 10pm (unless we wanted to venture to an “after-hours” spot) to party.  Monday through Thursday the island closes pretty early.  That proved just fine by us.  We took advantage of our time on this calm island.  We were in bed by 10pm most nights, and out the door by 9:30am most mornings.  Don’t get me wrong…we partied.  We just adjusted our time to do so.  What a great concept!  Our days consisted of the fitness center or water aerobics first, then Blood Marys and mimosas with breakfast, the pool,white wine spritzers and champagne cocktails for lunch (and in the hours leading up to and after lunch!), and wine with dinner.  By nightfall, we were more than ready to turn in.

We were told that on Sunday we could not miss the opportunity to go to a place called Shirley Heights.  More specifically, to The popular Shirley Heights Lookout Bar & Restaurant that rests at the summit.  We did not hike up to the top as many do (I’m willing to back to do that after the ankle heals, though!).  Instead, we were picked up at the resort by our awesome, private island guide, Ozzie, and driven right to the door or the restaurant/bar/soundstage.  The festivities began at 5:30ish with the steel drum “orchestra” Digicel Halcyon Orchestra, full bar and a dining spread that was a showstopper!  After about 2 hours of the steel drum amazement, came a live reggae band until 10pm.

The place was packed!  Packed with tourists mostly, but there were some locals.  The mood was so festive.  The sun setting over the beautiful hills,  located approximately 492 feet above sea level,  with panoramic views of the southern island of Guadeloupe and the active volcano Montserrat. Simply breathtaking!

We secured spots on the front row of the stage at the picnic tables (not an easy feat at all!), and while I sat and enjoyed the music, the ladies went to buy drinks (rum punch, Dark and Stormy, rum and coconut water) and food (grilled lobster, jerk chicken jerk ribs, potato salad, rice and peas, coleslaw).  Yes, this place ROCKS!!!

We only stayed for half of the reggae set.  The food, drinks and steel drum orchestra more than satisfied us.  We had scheduled our pick-up for 9:30pm.  It was 8:30, and we were ready to leave.  Fortunately, we got Ozzie’s card.  And, fortunately Ozzie is well-known at Shirley Heights.  We went up to the bar, asked to use the phone to call him,  The bartender looked at the card, motioned someone from the doorway over to the bar, she looked at the card, told us to wait a second, and she returned with Ozzie.  We were resort-bound in no time!  What a great night.  And we were happily in bed by 10pm.