Cuban cars – this says it all, except that they ride like billy carts.

The four-hour road trip to Trinidad, Cuba (as distinct from Trinidad & Tobago) was as bone-shaking as I’d feared. Although we were on the great four-lanes each way, central, national highway for much of the time, our driver had to dodge potholes and broken surfaces all the way along, with the Chevy’s suspension bottoming out continually – to say nothing of the overpowering presence of diesel fumes.

Thankfully, the Iberostar Grand Hotel in central Trinidad was a rare oasis of calm, good taste and even had a pleasant receptionist. Israel whisked us away to see the local Ancon Beach, a tourist attraction with its white sand and clear water. We’d forgotten to bring our swimmers and had to make do with a paddle. The sea water was astonishingly warm, far warmer, in fact, that the shower at the Raquel Hotel where I’d had a run-in with the bellboy that morning. He won a spiteful tug of war over using the hotel trolley – only for me to go downstairs later and find that he was doubling that day as the receptionist. I had to grovel my way back into his favour because we wanted to leave some cases at the hotel overnight. I’d found the doubling practice in other hotels, too. One waiter at Hemmingway’s hotel was also the security guard. I hoped he didn’t get the jobs specs mixed and shoot his drinkers.

The Iberostar Grand Hotel tries very hard to be five star, or even four, and I appreciate that, but still has a way to go. For dinner, the seductive description of a seafood pizza and the high-stepping waiters won me, but the delivery, with a base of uncooked  of dough, let down the passable topping. The accompanying live music didn’t help either as a fumbling pianist and a struggling violinist loudly fought each other for dominance. The trouble was, the well lubricated diners clapped, making the musicians think they were stars.

Hotel Toaster Review

The Theme Park Inferno with a slice of bread strapped in for the ride of its life.

I have to say that the Iberostar had as good a breakfast as the Raquel had bad. Furthermore, there were no sparrows helping themselves to the food at the Iberostar – as they do every morning at the Raquel. The Iberostar toaster is a classic. Standing on four legs like a lunar landing module, this toaster is modelled on a theme park ride, which is why it’s called The Theme Park Inferno. The bread is strapped in with a meal safety bar and is then sent on a fiery internal trip, while you wait for your toast like an anxious parent looking for his kid to come through the exit door. For all its engineering wizardry, the toast is pretty ordinary and I’d only give The Theme Park Inferno six and a half out of ten. I must remember to send Derek Breadchamber a picture.

Apart from is public buildings, Trinidad has quite a different architectural style to Havana. It is more ‘Spanish township’ than Italianate or colonial. The narrow roadways are paved with river stones and are a threat to the ankles. That didn’t stop us from walking, climbing towers, looking into museums and the proliferation of art galleries, fending off vendors and stopping to eat what always promises to be enticing food but turns out to be bland. We have grown used to ordering and calling immediately for Tabasco sauce to bring the food into some kind of taste zone. Without doubt, Cuba is the most unappealing place to eat out. But the cocktails work on the plus side. I walked around partly drunk much of the time because cocktails are about the same price as soft drinks in Australia.

Because we’d prepaid, our last night in Havana was back at the Raquel. This time, the formerly grumpy-schoolteacher receptionist was all smiles as she announced that we’d been given a suite.

I think she’d set us up. When we opened the door we found that the suite is the same as a standard room except that it is a little longer and bent around the bathroom. Our big prize was a double bed which comprised a tired mattress suspended between iron railings and propped up by a large wooden stool underneath. Unless the mattress was scientifically positioned to sit exactly on the railings it sank through to the stool and produced a sleep-denying slope.

I noted that the hotel had a well-priced massage service in the basement. I tried it out. I was sealed up in a marble coffin and basted in oil like a Christmas goose – which the masseuse neglected to remove before I left. I shone my way through dinner and then slithered into the double bed in the hope that this may have been the best way not to disturb the critical balance of the mattress on the rails and the waiting stool beneath. Another feature of this room was the unreliability of the room key card which, when placed in its slot, was supposed to keep the power turned on in the room. It got the wobbles five times during the night, turning off the air conditioner which effectively heated up the room.

The Raquel has to go down as the most beautiful but worst equipped and staffed hotel in my experience.

Our departure the next morning for Boston gave us the final finger. Because our baggage had now grown to three large suitcases, two carry-ons and two hand bags we called for a big taxi or a van. What arrived was the smallest taxi available in Cuba. Our biggest case became a front seat passenger as we rattled along, the open windows in the role of AC and pollution collector.