Getting inside Cuban kitchens at paladares (private restaurants), helping stir stew pots in private homes and picking and eating organic produce at sustainable farms in the countryside are experiences available to travelers who book the seven-night Cuba Culinary Tour to Havana and Trinidad offered by Access Trips.
CEO Tamar Lowell launched the people-to-people program in May 2015, sold out the first departure two months later and has sent more than 70 groups since then.
"Discovering Cuba's culture through its cuisine is our focus. Our guests interact with farmers, chefs, fishermen, beekeepers and mixologists in restaurants, private homes, on farms and on a tobacco plantation, and they also learn the salsa with a local dance troupe, tour art galleries, walk the streets of Old Havana and mingle with street musicians," Lowell said.
In addition to the culinary focus, what sets this tour apart from most people-to-people offerings are the accommodations, group size and mode of ground transport.
"Our guests stay in private homes. For the five nights in Havana we use a lovely, old colonial mansion; all rooms have a private bath. In Trinidad, which is not as built up as Havana, our guests stay in small guesthouses," Lowell said.
The maximum group size on all departures is 10, accompanied by two local guides.
"The guides are invaluable because in Cuba so much of the guest experience is interacting with the locals, seeing what they do, what and where they eat and where they socialize," she said.
Access Trips has an operational manager in Havana, as well. During the tour, he and his wife open their home to the group for tapas and a happy hour daiquiri class with a bartender from Floridita, the bar where the drink is said to have originated and where a life-size, bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway graces the far end of the bar.
Transport in and around Havana and to Trinidad is in vintage 1950s cars.
The Cuba program, priced from $3,490 per person depending upon date selected, uses scheduled flights to Havana, which are not included in the price.
Guests come from all over the U.S., although the Northeast predominates.
"They are not all foodies, although we have had some chefs on the tours. The average age is between 50 and 70 years, but we are seeing people in their 30s and 40s as well as multigenerational groups," Lowell said.
Access pays 10% commission, and business through agents is increasing, "but we want more. We are running seminars, attending trade shows, and we now have a director of industry sales and marketing," she said.
Advance bookings are up 50% year to date over 2016, "and 2016 was a very strong year for us," according to Lowell.
April departures have been sold out since last December.
The company plans to add a four-night (Thursdays through Mondays) tour of Havana in the fall to complement the weekly departure of its longer tour.