Nikki Muller's Travel Black Book

Cuba in a time capsule

Havana's music, history and landscapes transport visitors back to the 1950s

Who: Singapore-based Swiss-Filipina TV presenter and actress Nikki Muller, 30

Favourite destination: Havana, Cuba

Why: There is an allure and mystery about Cuba, which boasts incredible music, a rich history and beautiful landscapes. You can find it all in Havana. Going there is like travelling back in time to the 1950s and now is the time to go before the country fully opens up to the rest of the world and commercialism takes over at high speed.

Favourite place to stay

Hotels in Havana get fully booked quickly so planning is crucial. I thought booking two months ahead would suffice, but I didn't get to stay at my first-choice hotel.

During the peak season from midNovember to March, hotel rates can range from US$250 (S$360) to US$400, which is expensive, considering the quality of accommodation. Go with an open mind and remember that this country has had many import restrictions over the decades, so access to materials and funding for maintenance have been scarce. But these are still beautiful, charming and clean hotels.

The most popular hotels in terms of historical value and comfort are Hotel Inglaterra (www.hotelinglaterra-cuba.com), the oldest hotel in Havana; Hotel Saratoga (www.hotel-saratoga.com), a luxury hotel with a panoramic view of Havana from its rooftop bar; Hotel Ambos Mundos (www.hotelambosmundos-cuba.com) where author Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote for years; and Hotel Nacional de Cuba (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com/en/home.asp), which was frequented by much of Old Hollywood, including singer Frank Sinatra.

For an authentic Cuban living experience, stay in a guesthouse (casa particular), such as Casa Juan Carlos (www.tripadvisor.com.sg/Hotel_Review-g147271-d2507011Reviews-Casa_Juan_Ca... Havana_Cuba.html). Such stays will cost on average between 25 Cuban Convertible Pesos (S$36) and 40 pesos.

Favourite restaurant

Access to produce and ingredients is limited, but the food is still very good. Cafe del Oriente (112 Oficios, La Habana, Cuba; tel:+53-7860- 6686) is an upmarket, government-run restaurant with insanely good steak tartare.

I absolutely adored O'Reilly 304 (O'Reilly No. 304, Habana, Cuba; tel: +53-5264-4725) for interesting Cuban and Spanish tapas and delicious cocktails. Reservations are required.

I have heard people must try Paladar Dona Eutimia (Callejon del Chorro 60-C, Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja, Havana 30600, Cuba; tel: +53-7861-1332), apparently one of the best restaurants in town. Most restaurants serve similar fare, such as meat, rice and beans, for about 10 pesos for a set meal, which includes an alcoholic drink, dessert and coffee or tea. So food and drinks are not too expensive.

Opt for a place with a live band for the full experience.

Favourite museum

The Museum of the Revolution (Avenida Belgica, La Habana, Cuba) is beautifully curated and maintained. It takes you through the history of the revolution, the struggles of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the many women who were an integral part of the resistance. It is housed in the Presidential Palace, home of Cuban presidents up to Castro's takeover, and it is from here that Castro made historical speeches and led the country.

Behind the building, you'll see the original yacht, called Granma, which took Castro and his revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba to start the revolutionary movement in 1959. You'll also see the tank that Castro used during the invasion of Bay of Pigs in 1961.

The National Museum of Fine Arts (Calle Trocadero e/Zulueta y Monserrate, Havana, Cuba; tel: +53-7862-1643; www.bellasartes.cult.cu) houses stunning work by Cuban artists, a unique cultural experience.

Favourite day trip

I travelled to Vinales, about 21/2 hours' drive from Havana. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site with magnificent valleys where people go to hike and visit the tobacco plantations.

The best meal I had in Cuba was at an organic farm called Case de Confianza or Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso (Carretera Al Cementerio KM 11/2, Vinales, Cuba; tel: +53-5818-8581), with a view to die for. Its Anti-Stress cocktail - a pina colada with blended coriander and mint - was amazing.

Best souvenirs

Buy your cigars and rum at the Romeo y Julieta cigar factory (romeoyjulietacigars.com), where a big bottle of rum will cost only US$3 to US$5.

Depending on the brand and size of the cigar, prices will vary. Cohibas and Montecristos are the most expensive and three large ones can cost about US$30. Guantanamera is a brand most locals smoke and you can get a big box of varying sizes for about US$13, so this is a good option for souvenirs and giveaways.

Favourite shopping

There is an antique and bohemian flea market in Plaza de Armas in Old Havana. It sells old books, old and new Cuban movie posters, photos of Castro and Che and some really great old vinyl records. It is open every day. Be prepared to haggle over the prices, which start roughly 25 to 35 per cent higher than what is considered a fair price.Best local find Casa De La Musica Centro Habana (Avenida 35 esq. a 20, Miramar, Playa, Havana, Cuba; tel:+53- 7204- 0447) is where the locals hang out for a good night of clubbing. Go there for insane 16-piece bands and Cuban salsa music. It's a huge indoor space and you can pay for a table close to the front for about US$60, which includes a bottle of Havana Club rum and mixers. Entrance is about 20 pesos and worth it. It is the salsa centre of Havana.

Event to bookmark

Jan 1 is a huge deal in Cuba. Not only is it the New Year, but it's also the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, so it's a massive party. For good music, travel to Havana in December for the Havana International Jazz Festival (jazzcuba.com).

Must do

Visit La Casa Del Son (www. bailarencuba.com/lacasadelson/index.php/en/) and take a Cuban dance class. It caters to all levels and you will have a wild time and learn quickly.

Also, take a walking tour or Cadillac ride around the city. Havana Tour Company (havanatourcompany.com)has a walking tour (US$30 a person) and a Cadillac tour (US$50 a person before discount).

Another great resource is Locally Sourced Cuba Tours (locally sourcedcuba.com), a company which can customise your entire vacation. It is handy if you want to explore more places outside of Havana, which I recommend.

Traveller's advice

Cash is king. My Singapore credit and debit cards were not accepted in Cuba. It also does not accept US-issued cards and Western Union is only an option if money is sent from abroad to a Cuban citizen. So calculate your expenses and bring lots of cash.

Change money at your hotel or at the airport. Avoid the banks where queues can be long.

Tipping is expected for tours and at restaurants.

  • The Cuban Embassy in Singapore does not process visas. For applications, call the embassy in Indonesia on +62-2-1 548-5902 or go to www.cubadiplomatica.cu/indonesia
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'Cuba in a time capsule'. Print Edition | Subscribe