Cuban spirit

Tropical sun, rum galore and it won’t break the bank? Finding the perfect Caribbean escape for 2021


I’m sailing with my husband and three sons off the coast of Varadero, Cuba’s premier beach resort. Behind us is the softest, whitest beach; below us, in a sea that sparkles like cut glass, a huge shoal of sleek silvery mackerel shimmy by, while overhead brown pelicans circle, getting ready to dive for their lunch. Oh, the memory of it.

The good news is that, with no quarantine restrictions, Cuba is again a wonderful option for UK travellers in search of winter sun.

It was Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro who opened up Varadero (previously an elite private retreat) to mass tourism post-revolution. On the 12-mile Hicacos Peninsula on the island’s north coast, its attractions include activities on the water, a nature reserve, Cuba’s only 18-hole golf course and a great choice of hotels. But Varadero’s biggest draw is the beach, worthy of its place in the top five best in the world.

Cuba has somewhat lagged behind other destinations in terms of luxury, service and food, but oh how things have changed for the better in recent years.

Varadero is now easily the best bargain in the Caribbean, with luxurious package holidays half the price of those on nearby islands, such as the Bahamas or Jamaica.

Iberostar Varadero is a lively resort, with 386 generous rooms spread over 11 low-rise buildings, set in exotic gardens bordering the beach. It has a scuba-diving centre, water sports kiosk, and skippered catamaran trips running at regular intervals.

For kids with energy to burn there’s a full programme of activities; and for adults looking for tranquillity, a small spa is tucked away in a quiet corner.

The décor of our spacious suite is in Caribbean hues — sunshine yellows and sky blues — that put us instantly in beach mode. The bottle of complimentary rum helps too. If you can get over the wrist band that you’re required to wear, there are many benefits to going all-inclusive. Mojitos on tap is just one.

Leaving your wallet in the safe is another; gone were the constant, “Can I have?” questions from my sons, leaving me free to read in peace. Barbecue lunches are served pool- and beach-side but for dinner there’s choice, from Japanese to the all-encompassing “international”, but it’s the Cuban restaurant, Ambrosio, that is our favourite, with local classics using ingredients such as sweet peppers and fried plantain.

Evening entertainment-wise, it’s a little hit and miss. I don’t mind the feathers, sequins, and turbans decorated with fruit in the Copacabana-style show — it feels in keeping with the island — but we give the Michael Jackson tribute band a miss.

We head instead to the cigar lounge (when in Rome…) to discover Cuban cigars are milder than expected, with a salty aftertaste which comes from Cuba’s lithium-rich soil. Lithium is a natural mineral used in mood stabilisers; no wonder Cubans look so happy.

For the first few days our routine remains the same — sun-loungers on the beach in the morning, near enough to the watersports centre that we can make good use of the complimentary paddle boards, kayaks and pedalos.

The water is wonderfully shallow for quite some distance and life jackets are de rigueur, so I never need to worry about my three sons.

We adopt a dog we call Sandy (due to her colour and her penchant for sleeping between our sunbeds) who joins us for early evening walks along the sand, when the sky is a canvas splashed with flamingo pink and tangerine orange.

For a change of scene, we dine at the peninsula’s only historic landmark — Maison Xanadu, built between 1926 and 1929 by American millionaire Irenee Dupont (who fled the island in 1959). The marble and mahogany interior is straight out The Great Gatsby and it feels decadent to sip a mint julep on its terrace.

There’s not a great deal to Varadero town, although you will find a branch of Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio, which claims to be the birthplace of the mojito.

As Havana itself is just two hours away, I book a driver and one of Cuba’s iconic classic cars. What it lacks in air-conditioning, it makes up for in style with its wide chassis, baby blue paint and shark-like tail fins.

“Slide in,” Jose, our driver, tells us. The seats are bench-style and slippery, so it’s an easy direction to follow. As we head towards the city in glamorous style, he follows it up with, “Want to see a favourite place of Castro’s?”

An ice-cream parlour is not what we’re expecting, but Coppelia is one of several that Castro opened post-revolution to keep the people happy and is still state-subsidised.

Once in the city centre, we drive along the Malecon, Havana’s seafront boulevard, where locals stand on the sea wall to fish and young couples stroll. Jose points out the time-warped Hotel Nacional, which has hosted everyone from Cuban revolutionaries to Hollywood stars.

One of the world’s most alluring cities, Havana has been recently restored, in time for its 500th anniversary, and looked resplendent in the sun as we set out to explore, from the iconic art deco Bacardi Building (the famous rum producer’s original headquarters) to the immense gleaming white El Capitolio, Cuba’s seat of government.

Havana’s most beautiful theatre, Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso, is also gleaming, but stray a little off the tourist path and many of the 900 buildings of historic interest remain evocatively dilapidated, with trees growing through the roofs of colonial mansions and washing strung on the balconies of once-grand theatres.

Where there is rum there is usually salsa music or son cubano (a blend of African and Spanish beats), so for a mojito served with a slice of 1950s, we head for Dos Hermanos on the harbourfront, unchanged since Hemingway used to stop by.

The city has been tipped as the next gastronomic capital of the world, and the paladars, small family-run restaurants, can take much of the credit since they were established in the 1990s when Castro allowed private citizens to open restaurants in their homes.

One such place, Paladar San Cristobal, reminiscent of an antique shop with its cuckoo clocks, religious iconography and animal skins, was made famous when Obama visited in 2016. “We’ll have what Obama had,” my husband tells the waitress.

It’s tempting to while away the remainder of our holiday on the beach, but with Varahicacos Ecological Reserve on our doorstep, home to 31 species of bird and 24 species of reptile, we spend a few hours armed with binoculars searching out herons, spoonbills and the tocororo, Cuba’s national bird, with its green back, blue head and bright red belly.

What we don’t expect to find are human skeletons more than 2,500 years old, laid out where they were discovered in a small bat-riddled cave, or the 500-year-old 20-foot cactus, el Patriarca, thought to be Cuba’s oldest living organism.

Another day, we take a boat trip from the nearby marina (one of three) to the tiny desert islands of Cayo Romero, Blanco and Piedras and the coral reefs at the eastern tip of the peninsula, to snorkel among angelfish, yellow tang, scorpionfish, damsels and lionfish. And through shafts of watery sunlight, we’re thrilled to spot a large but harmless nurse shark sliding silently by.

The latest rum rum (Cuban slang for gossip and a nod to the island’s national tipple, said to lubricate both lips and hips) is that Cuba will be on many UK holidaymakers’ wishlists this year. When the people and culture are as colourful and warm as one of Varadero spectacular sunsets, it’s no wonder.


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