VARADERO, CUBA - “The first thing you need to know about Cuba is that it is not an island,” says L.J., our local guide, as our van travels toward Havana.
It’s not? Did I miss something? I could have sworn there was water all around us when we flew into Varadero. Then again, it was dark by the time we landed and got to our resort, the 386-room Iberostar Varadero, and as I jumped straight into the van this morning for the two-hour drive to Havana, I have yet to visit the beach.
“It’s an archipelago,” L.J. says, his dark lanky frame and grey hair silhouetted against the blur of the casuarina, sea grape and palm trees flashing by outside. “Cuba has more than 4,000 cays. Little islands. Varadero itself is on the 21-kilometre Hicacos Peninsula.”
Apparently I have a lot to learn about Cuba.
For a first timer, Cuba can be hard to grasp, an exuberant mix of Spanish and island cultures, music, beaches, revolution, colonial architecture, shortages, elegance and all-inclusive resorts. So, as I begin a whirlwind visit to three different areas — Varadero, Havana and Cayo Ensenachos — I’m determined to learn as much as possible about this tropical island — ahem, archipelago — that attracts about a million Canadians each year.
What better place to start than Old Havana, where history goes back 500 years and every street is a picture, with wrought iron balconies, gleaming ’50s-era cars and arched doorways that show tantalizing glimpses into garden courtyards.
Left: Cubans have much to smile about these days. Right: The old 50s style cars that occupy the streets of Cuba.
We can’t possibly hope to see everything in a day, so after a quick visit to the H. Upmann Tobacco Factory shop, we quite wisely head to the bar.
“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita,” L.J. recites a popular quote said to be from Ernest Hemingway, who made Cuba his home for 20 years.
Since we don’t have time to visit both establishments we settle on El Floridita.
“The cradle of the daiquiri,” L.J. declares, as red-aproned waiters bustle around carrying trays of pale frozen daiquiris to eager customers who don’t seem to care it’s not yet noon.
A jazz band is playing at the front of the room, a life-size bronze sculpture of Hemingway is leaning against the bar and when L.J. starts dancing, I get a taste of Havana’s vibrancy and flair for enjoyment.
But there is too much to see to stay inside, so reluctantly I set down my daiquiri and we stroll through Old Havana, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where major restorations have been undertaken in places such as the historic Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Catedral.
It’s nearly evening when we get back to Varadero and the first thing I do is race to the beach.
Considered one of the world’s best, the beach here is an endless stretch of sugar white sand bordered by water of the palest turquoise blue. Lining the beach, the resort’s thatch umbrellas blend in organically with the lush vegetation of the peninsula and the colonial-style architecture of the hotel, and I immediately understand why Varadero is so popular with Canadians — and why the 5-star Iberostar Varadero is consistently voted one of its top properties.
Left: Old Havana and its colourful houses. Right: Iberostar has some of the most beautiful resorts on Cuba.
The most developed resort area in Cuba, Varadero has attracted vacationers for more than a century. In the 1930s, it was the getaway of choice for wealthy Americans and Cubans who built extravagant mansions along the beach.
After the 1959 revolution, Varadero became far less exclusive and today, with the government supporting tourism, more than 50 hotels line the peninsula.
I could happily while away a week here, bouncing from the hotel’s centrepiece pool, with its white pillars and swim-up bar, to a shaded deck chair by the ocean. Instead, after a grilled lobster dinner, a Vegas-style show and a good night’s sleep it’s off to Cayo Ensenachos, a five-hour drive east.
In Cayo Ensenachos the pace is slower … it’s a place to unwind. A tiny cay connected to the mainland by a causeway, Cayo Ensenachos is on the northern coast of Villa Clara province.
The all-inclusive Iberostar Ensenachos is the only resort on the pristine horseshoe-shaped cay, with two long beaches and three distinct zones: PARK for families, SPA for adults and the more separate and deluxe Grand Village, where spacious yellow villas offer butler service and outdoor Jacuzzis so private you could soak in the buff.
The beach at Varadero may be world famous, but I can’t imagine anything dreamier than the private beach reserved for patrons of the Grand Village. Settling into a deck chair, a salt-tinged breeze ruffling my hair, I feel as if we’re a million slow kilometres away from lively Havana.
After such a short time in Cuba, I may be no closer to grasping this island nation’s complexities, but just for the moment it seems enough to concentrate on sun, surf and sand.
Spanish-based Iberostar Hotels & Resorts manages a number of luxury properties in Cuba. Three top-rated Premium Gold properties are: the 5-star Iberostar Parque Central in Havana, the 5-star all-inclusive Iberostar Varadero and the 5-star all-inclusive Iberostar Ensenachos. To experience Cuba in more depth, consider a Sunwing Vacation Package that combines a stay at Havana’s Iberostar Parque Central with a stay at one of their ocean-side resorts. For more information visit www.Iberostar.com
/ Air Canada Vacations also offers holiday packages to Cuba from Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. EDITOR NOTE: Get there soon! Now that the U.S. has started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, Canadians will see prices start rising as American hotels chains start moving into the communist island.