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Cubans have long been in the habit of welcoming guests into their homes, and since 1997 one of the successes of the Revolución has been the casa particular (the equivalent of the B&B). As relations with the US continue to thaw (embassies reopened in the respective capitals last month after 50 years), Airbnb launched in Cuba in April, becoming one of the first US businesses to do so. It already has over 2,000 listings – though a continuing trade embargo means you can only book in advance from the US. Staying with a private host is a great way to get beneath a country’s skin and find out about where locals eat, drink and have fun. On a recent trip, with stays at five people’s homes, we asked our hosts for the lowdown on their neighbourhoods.
Casa Caracol, Old Havana
Julio Hernandez Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Julio Hernandez, who runs Casa Caracol, Old Havana, Cuba
We were the second-ever guests at Casa Caracol, host Julio Hernandez having signed up with Airbnb just days before. A typical Spanish colonial property, Casa Caracol has one street-facing living area with three bedrooms leading off the central courtyard. Julio was proud of his improvised power shower – a bit of a novelty luxury item in Havana. The place is clean and ideally placed for exploring old Havana, two blocks from the Capitolio (the government building) and an easy walk to the port.
• Rooms sleeping 4 from 34CUC (about £22), breakfast £2.60. Calle Cristo #40 between Teniente Rey and Muralla. Can be booked from a US internet address at airbnb.co.uk/rooms/5890631, or by phone on +53 5 390 3416
Havana city guide: what to see plus the best new bars, restaurants and hotels
Where Julio sent us
Emerging from the economic and physical ruins of Old Havana, Bar El Dandy, (Plaza de Cristo, bareldandy.com) is leased by the state, funded by Swedish money, but run and managed by Cubans, including the women behind the bar. The menu, the art on the walls, the casual stack of vinyl, is all perfectly stage-managed for a western audience. Breakfast isn’t much of a thing in Havana, so the offering of coffee, eggs, fruit salad and baguettes is unusual in the city (£5).
All the staff at El Chanchullero, (Bernaza y Cristo, el-chanchullero.com) wear “Hemingway did NOT drink here” T-shirts – refreshing irony in a tourist-driven city. The bar has been around for five years and you get a sense that its owners know their audience pretty well. The decor sees revolutionary slogans and posters on distressed painted walls, the menu is full of appetising, affordable tapas (the pimientos de padrón pack a punch) and the music is contemporary – this was pretty much the only place we didn’t hear Buena Vista Social Club’s Chan Chan over and over again. Early evening sees the place packed with Cubans and young tourists, eagerly taking advantage of cheap, strong cocktails (caipirinhas and mojitos about £1.30). It’s easy to lose a few hours wedged into an intimate booth, watching the chaos of Old Havana unfold through the open door.
Casa Julio, Central Havana
Raquel, manager of Casa Julio Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Raquel, manager of Casa Julio (an associated house of Hostal Peregrino), central Havana, pictured in her own home.
As Havana’s hotels become overloaded so, then, do the smaller hostels. The popular Hostal Peregrino (doubles from £26, breakfast £3, hostalperegrino.com) is no exception and, being full, the owners Elsa and Julio Roque booked us into one of their casas particulares.
At Casa Julio, Raquel, who calls herself “manager/caretaker/cleaner/slave” is friendly and attentive with the manner of a provincial B&B owner, providing complicated explanations of how to open doors and what fan setting was best. Central Havana, between Vedado and Old Havana, is a poor part of town where tourists rarely venture and the apartment is pretty basic, a bit like staying in your gran’s flat. But it’s cheap. The whole place – two bedrooms, kitchen, living room, two balconies – costs only £19 a night.
• Consulado #152, between Colon and Trocadero. Book on +537 860 1257, email@example.com
Where Raquel sent us
Hidden down a backstreet in Old Havana, La Familia, (San Juan de Dios #65 altos e/ Habana y Compostela, +53 7 863 4502) is a popular paladar (privately owned restaurant). After negotiating three flights of steep stairs, an incongruous series of fish tanks and a deserted cloakroom (who wears a coat in Cuba?), you emerge on to a beautiful roof terrace. It’s a small place with about six tables, and live music nightly. It’s not cheap but portions (in typical Cuban fashion) are huge – expect plantain, rice and beans, salad, yukka and fruit as accompaniments to your chosen dish. The mixed seafood platter was delicious, but pricey at about £16. Booking is recommended.
La Guarida restaurant Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A space at La Guarida restaurant.
La Guarida, (418 Concordia, +53 7 8669047) looks like a set from pre-revolution Havana. The crumbling grand staircase leads you up two floors of large, high-ceilinged rooms. In a corner a mother may be rocking a baby to sleep, white sheets hanging on the line. And then you step into the opulence of La Guarida restaurant. It’s been a Havana fixture for over 75 years and there’s a sure-footedness in the set-up – elegantly uniformed waitresses and ornate washrooms for a start. You can order with confidence: the food at La Guarida is of high quality. The varied menu is reasonably priced: mains of tenderloin, lobster, lamb tikka masala, along with the excellent Cuban speciality of suckling pig, cost around £10. It’s a popular place, with queues of visiting tourists spilling out down the corridors.
Casa Mercedes, Old Havana
Mercedes Valenciaga Sanz, owner of Casa Mercedes, Old Havana Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Mercedes Valenciaga Sanz, owner of Casa Mercedes, Old Havana.
This lovely colonial house on bustling Calle O’Reilly ticks many boxes for a fuss-free central Cuban homestay. Hostess Mercedes Valenciaga Sanz is old school in her style and manners – and makes you feel at home immediately in her nicely furnished, cool home. Rooms are clean and spacious and Mercedes has her finger on the pulse for places to eat, visit and explore.
• Doubles from £19 B&B, O’Reilly #506 between Villegas and Monserrate. casamercedes.awardspace.com. Book on +537 863 4493, firstname.lastname@example.org
Where Mercedes sent us
Tucked away in a quieter corner of Old Havana, 5 Esquinas (Habana #104, esq Cuarteles, +53 7 8606295, facebook.com/trattoria5esquinas) is a cool, clean, contemporary trattoria offering good food at reasonable prices – pizza, pasta, fish salads and soups. Waiter Alejandro brought us our wood-fired anchovy pizza with familiar European aloofness (pizza from about £4).
O’Reilly 304 Facebook Twitter Pinterest
O’Reilly 304 restaurant, Old Havana.
Ornately framed mirrors and chalkboards adorn the exposed brickwork walls in O’Reilly 304 (e/ Habana y Aguiar, +53 5 2644725), a friendly and welcoming Barcelona-style tapas bar. Its food is amazing. The ceviche was a particular highlight. Given the scarcity of certain ingredients in Cuba, the assembly of white fish, onions, coriander, lime, white beans, chilli and garlic is a feat of acquisition as well as culinary excellence (only £2.50).
Casa El Tulipan, Trinidad
Mara and Bernardo, who run Casa El Tulipan, Trinidad, Cuba. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Mara and Bernardo, who run Casa El Tulipan, Trinidad, Cuba.
One of the best ways to find a casa particular when you are out and about, and don’t necessarily have a reliable internet connection, is to use the Cuba Junky app, which lists a huge variety of casas all over Cuba by geographical area (make sure you download content before you leave).
Top of the list in Trinidad is Casa El Tulipan. You have to walk an extra few blocks in searing heat, but are rewarded by an even warmer welcome from owners Bernardo and Mara. The two-bedroom rooftop apartment is in a quiet residential area. Ascend the spiralling stone staircase and step on to a beautiful terrace boasting shaded views across Trinidad. Being Dutch, Mara Gonzalez-Martinez speaks perfect English, and having lived in Trinidad for many years is a good source of recommendations.
• Room from £22 B&B. Antonio Cardenas (Reforma) #511 between S. Bolivar (Desengaño) and Stgo. Escobar. Book on the Cuba Junky app/website cuba-junky.com, or +53 52711807, +53 5 271 1807, email@example.com
Where Mara sent us
Restaurante Sol y Son, Trinidad, Cuba. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Restaurante Sol y Son, Trinidad, Cuba.
For a typically Cuban dinner in beautiful surroundings, Restaurante Sol Y Son, (Simon Bolivar e/ Frank Pais y Jose Marti, +53 4 199 2926), is tick‑box colonial: an ivy-clad courtyard, lilting fountain under moonlit sky and quietly attentive staff. The place oozes romance, with vintage furniture and gramophones and a fine menu. The lobster-stuffed plantains (from £3) and pokey rum cocktails (£2) were a particular highlight.
Casa El Caribe, Trinidad
Nicola at Casa El Caribe. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Ada Silva runs Casa El Caribe in Trinidad with family members such as granddaughter Nicola, pictured.
If you can’t get into Casa El Tulipan, you can’t go wrong with Casa El Caribe run by Mara’s best friend, Ada Silva. It’s more centrally located, and the set-up is similar in that you can get the top floor all to yourself. The balcony is a prime people-watching spot and particularly well-positioned for the early morning bread man and his cry of pan suave (soft bread).
Casa El Caribe is a family operation, with grandson Maykel providing the breakfast, granddaughter Nicola imparting local knowledge and grandmother Ada the heart and soul of your stay. The two-bedroom, two-balcony apartment has its own private entrance and power shower. What isn’t listed is the amazing access that staying with Ada gives you. She knows everyone! We met neighbours, cousins, aunties and felt part of this warm, friendly community.
• Doubles from £16, Antonio Guiteras #151, between Frank Pais and Pedro Zerquera. Book on cubajunky.com, or +53 5 337 6903
Where Ada sent us
Open mic nights don’t usually do it for me but in the open courtyard at the rear of the Casa de la Trova (off the main square, Fernando Echerri 29) highly talented musicians sing local songs with verve and sensitivity. Tables and white plastic chairs spill forward from the ivy-clad walls, underneath an evening sky thick with cigar smoke. It is a place where people congregate to share stories, a bottle of rum, a joke, a kiss … it feels like we’ve gatecrashed a town reunion or an uncle’s birthday.
La Chanchanchara Bar, Trinidad. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
La Chanchanchara Bar, Trinidad.
Whether it is for a quick one or two to get your night going, or a final destination after you’ve exhausted local music venues, Taberna la Canchánchara (Calle Real del Jigue 90) is the perfect place to savour a Trinidadian speciality, a canchánchara cocktail (rum, honey, lemon and water), served in a small ceramic cup (£2). The place is heaving with musicians after the surrounding bars have closed, so you may be in for a lock-in. It has a nice setting in the colonial-style courtyard and outhouse of a 400-year-old property.
Matt Humphrey’s photography can be viewed at instagram.com/matthumphreyimages
Even the most astute fashion insider might not be able to draw the line between the musician J. Cole, the Swiss heritage brand Bally, and the country of Jamaica. Let us help clarify: Bally and J.Colecollaborated on a selection of items—a men’s hiking boot available in several colors and a backpack—that will hit stores this Fall. In the early stages of the collaborative process, Cole visited the brand’s offices in London, where he was struck by a portrait of Bob Marley wearing Bally hiking boots. (A side of Bob Marley’s style pop culture has glossed over.)
With the Marley connection in mind, the artist and brand headed to Jamaica to pay homage to the musician’s legacy. In the process they find music, inspiration, and so much more. See it all in the short film, above.
Keva Johnson, designer of Keva J Swimwear, is gearing up to debut The Nile 2016 S/S Collection during this year’s Miami Swim Week. Inspired by the African safari and Egyptian glamour, “The Nile Collection” embodies Keva J Swimwear’s signature sexy styles but with a new eclectic twist. The two main prints used throughout the collection are meant to captivate the eye. Johnson used a black and white fabric in several looks to mimic the abstract shapes of palm leaves found within the jungle. The second print features a purple floral design (similar to an Egyptian Lotus Flower) with a background that is reminiscent of the waves of the Nile River which flows through Egypt and Northern Africa. By incorporating bold prints, high necklines and daring cut outs, each design is meant to be worn by confident and sassy trendsetters. “I wanted to go back to what we are known for: daring cut outs and edgy looks. My new designs bridge the gap between function and fashion!” says Johnson.
Keva J Swimwear has partnered with Brian C. Hawkins, celebrity hair stylist and make-up artist, as well as Steve Madden for this year’s poolside presentation, so each swimwear look will be perfectly paired with the brand’s latest sandals, pumps and wedges. Victoria Rafaeli, Reality TV Star and former house guest on CBS’ Hit Reality Show Big Brother (season 16), will be one of the models showcasing the new collection.
Johnson’s sexy designs have been worn by Kim & Kourtney Kardashian, Ashanti, Iggy Azalea, Angela Simmons and Julissa Bermudez.
Angelina Sharp, Pagiel Rose, Andrae Dixon and Anna Limeburner are co-owners of Jamaican Vybz, a new Jamaican restaurant that has opened at the corner of Cumberland and Center streets in Bangor.
Andrae Dixon and Pagiel Rose met in Bar Harbor, where the two Jamaican American chefs cooked in restaurants for nearly a decade. When they weren’t making lobster dishes for hungry tourists, they were cooking the food of their island home — jerk chicken, curry goat, brown stew chicken, festival dumplings, many others — and dreaming about the Jamaican restaurant they’d someday open.
Now, with their business partners Anna Limeburner and Angelina Sharp, that restaurant dream has finally come true. Jamaican Vybz, a new take out restaurant, is open for lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays at the corner of Center and Cumberland streets in Bangor.
“We always wanted to open a restaurant, and Bangor was the only place we could really do it,” said Dixon. “We could afford it and we could be open year-round.”
The four business partners spent most of the spring cleaning and renovating the storefront at 97 Center St., now painted in lively green, yellow, red and black. In the three weeks that Jamaican Vybz has been open, Limeburner said they have already seen many repeat customers.
“The thing that’s been really surprising to me is how many people have come back each week and tried lots of different things,” said Limeburner, a Boston native. “People are really excited to try something different.”
While jerk chicken is arguably the most iconic and well-known Jamaican dish — and Dixon and Rose’s jerk chicken is prepared with their authentic, wildly flavorful house-made jerk spice rub — the restaurant offers a wide array of classic Jamaican dishes. Curry goat, cooked in a spicy curry sauce, and oxtail, a tender beef cut braised and served with rice, are both on the menu.
“We had to look around a lot to find a supplier for goat and for the oxtail,” said Dixon. “We get it from W.A. Bean. Sean Smith [W.A. Bean’s director of sales] worked hard to get that for us. So we get that locally, which is good for everybody.”
There’s also brown stew chicken, a Caribbean treat in which chicken is stewed in brown sugar, garlic and spices, and Ital stew, a vegetable and bean stew, as well as Jamaican-style fried chicken and barbecued ribs. For sides, Jamaican Vybz offers fried plantains, rice and beans made with coconut milk, festival (a cornmeal dumpling) and Jamaican-style coleslaw and potato salad. There’s a wide array of Caribbean soft drinks in the cooler, from Irish Moss, a sweet, rich peanut-based drink, to pineapple soda and ginger beer. They also offer house-made juices, including spiced carrot, cucumber-ginger-lime, and beet, carrot and peanut.
Dixon, Rose, Limeburner and Sharp hope eventually to expand their restaurant to offer sit-down dining and a bar, as well as new dishes like Jamaican patties, a pastry stuffed with spiced meat. Rose, who most recently was sous chef at the Looking Glass at the Bluenose Inn in Bar Harbor, said he thinks people are ready for different cuisines and dining options in Bangor.
“I’m really happy that people are gravitating towards the things they’ve never tried before,” said Rose. “They want something they haven’t had. And they like it, too. That’s been really great to see.”
Jamaican Vybz, located at 97 Center St. in Bangor, across the street from Bangor Floral, is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and is closed on Sundays. It is available for takeout only, either walk-in or call ahead at 973-1999. It also will do delivery in Bangor.
HARLEM — Reggae’s pumping from the speakers overhead, and I can’t help but nod my head to the beat as I chew on a slice of fried plantain. My tablemates are swigging Ting (the Jamaican grapefruit soda) to temper the heat as they tuck into bags of peppery shell-on shrimp.
A diverse crowd of diners – students, well-heeled middle-aged couples, tourists, and young parents with infants in tow – is focused on their own food, and perched on colorful metal stools pulled up to rough-hewn wooden tables.
It feels as if we’re somewhere the Caribbean, steps away from a sun-drenched beach.
But I’m thousands of miles away in Manhattan, where Lolo’s Seafood Shack is bringing island heat to a sun-starved city.
“We like to think of ourselves as Harlem’s own lolo,” says Leticia “Skai” Young-Mohan, referring to the much-loved casual restaurants that line the beach at Grand Case on St. Martin’s French side.
Skai and her Guyanese husband chef Raymond Mohan (formerly of Anguilla’s Straw Hat) opened their eatery last October with a goal of bringing Caribbean-inspired food to New York’s hungry masses.
And since then thrifty Columbia University students, wealthy Upper West Siders, and culinarily curious residents of the new condos that have sprung up in the gentrifying neighborhood have flocked to the diner for a taste.
Featuring fare described as a mash-up of flavors from of the Caribbean and Cape Cod, the menu includes favorites any Caribbean lover will recognize: the puffy and golden deep-fried disks of dough called bakes; fried plantain; Trinidad’s much-loved fried fish “bake and shark” sandwich; and Johnny cakes.
However, they’re served in inventive ways and prepared with unexpected ingredients. The jerk du jour is beef ribs, not the usual chicken or pork, and the “crabby dip” is made with gruyere cheese (and, I can report, satisfyingly crabby). Johnny cakes are laced with divinely decadent honey butter, and even the humble fried plantain gets an upgrade, topped with Mexican cotilla cheese and its own drizzle of honey butter. Jamaican-style peel-‘n-eat pepper shrimp is served in the traditional plastic bag but comes with a pair of plastic gloves to protect your hands from the pepper.
But the biggest (and most delightful) surprise on the menu turns out to be a side dish, the wok-seared cauliflower. Lolo’s was formerly a Chinese restaurant and the owners use the now well-seasoned original woks to flash fry the vegetable, transforming it into a truly delicious cruciferous creation with a pleasing char and a garlicky kick.
The only Caribbean element missing from a meal at Lolo’s? A frosty Red Stripe or Carib. But the restaurant hopes to have its liquor license by Memorial Day. By then customers should be able to enjoy the Shack’s now-hidden treasure: a rear garden perfect for soaking up the rays as you graze.
The sandy sweeps of the Caribbean are hundreds of miles from the gritty streets of Harlem. But Lolo’s transporting tropical fare makes them seem much closer.
Lolo’s is at 303 W 116th St, and opens during the week from 4pm to 10pm, and on weekends from noon to 10pm. lolosseafoodshack.com