I’M sitting cradling a mojito cocktail in Plaza Vieja. There’s a three-man band playing salsa, a street vendor selling roasted peanuts in paper cones and a man smoking what appears to be – but isn’t – a giant joke cigar.
It’s hot and it’s humid. This could only be Cuba. Cuba has long been off the beaten track for cruise ships (although that’s changing now restrictions have eased). Yet the island is still a star attraction and was the only port on my voyage deemed worthy of a two-day stay.
And what a stay. The minute I step off the ship I find myself right in the middle of Cuba’s lively capital, Havana. As I sip that mojito, I gaze at other tables in the old town, Havana Vieja.
It is all narrow streets and crumbling Spanish colonial buildings gradually reclaiming their former glory, where people sit around huge glass beer urns with four taps and you fill your own glass.
There are hair-braiders breaking into salsa steps, people selling street food – coconut ice, which is half a frozen coconut – and women dressed in neon-coloured Creole dress. I could people-watch forever but in the end I drag myself away to the book market, which is selling communist tracts and old copies of Ernest Hemingway’s El Viejo Y El Mar (The Old Man And The Sea), one of the novels he wrote here.
Hemingway is Cuba’s favourite American so it seems churlish not to take a tour of his favourite bars.
La Bodeguita del Medio is something of a shrine to him, as well as patrons such as Nat King Cole and Marlene Dietrich. It was where the mojito was invented and on the wall I can see Hemingway’s scrawled approval: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita” – another favourite bar.
He lived for a while in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, (room 511) and Finca La Vigía (the Lookout) was his sprawling colonial house where the books he was reading are still at his bedside and the liquor bottles stand half-empty on the table.
He might just have stepped outside for a moment; in reality it was 60 years ago. In fact, my cruise has the air of something from long ago, albeit with all mod cons. I’m on Balmoral, a small ship of the very-traditional Fred. Olsen fleet. Definitely no water parks or rows of restaurants at an extra charge, just timeless style for 1,700 guests.
I like to think that Hemingway would have approved of the Art Deco touches were he to have sat on a stool at the Lido Bar, looking over the rear pool. I’m doing cruising as it used to be done, all the way from Europe to the Caribbean and back again. And that means plenty of days at sea. There is a daily programme of events to keep us amused – everything from shuffl eboard and yoga to thrice-daily quizzes.
Fred. Olsen always likes to throw in something unusual, too, and on this cruise there are two new ones on me. The fi st is a ukulele orchestra – there’s a class each sea day and by the end (so the teacher optimistically promises) I will be good enough to perform in a concert for my fellow passengers. I gave it a try and, for a moment, I thought I might be able to play the uke version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy as my new party piece.
I don’t, however, think I’m a natural George Formby, although it may have been because there is no lamp post to lean against, and I didn’t have the courage to try it on a street corner in Havana.
I fare better with England’s earliest form of social dancing. It dates from the start of the 1800s and is the kind Jane Austen would have enjoyed in the assembly rooms at Bath. Probably. Although it is not quite the same as there are (aren’t there always) more women who want to dance than men.
Balmoral is the perfect way to do this trip, its Britishness adding a truly colonial element to the destinations. The grand Ballindalloch and the intimate Spey restaurants have Scottish names and much of the ship has a cosy, Highland feel. It’s a wild contrast to Havana’s faded style and huge old American cars.
We exude a refined elegance as we slip from one classic Caribbean island after another; Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia, Grand Turk, the Bahamas.
She’s a ship that fits right in with the old-English charm of Bermuda, the first stop on our journey home. This is not an England I know – it’s one where Miss Marple would be at home. There are parishes called Somerset and Devon, red post boxes, policemen with helmets and even a Marks & Spencer.
Everything is painted in sugar candy colours and lawns are manicured. It is quite perfect; I doubt even the Irish bar gets noisy on a Saturday night. No one here is going to dance salsa in the street till dawn. About the only thing Bermuda has in common with Cuba is a love of rum. Make mine a mojito.
Anna Selby, Express
December 12, 2015