Landing in Cuba always seems like a step back in time, when everything was simpler and the pace much more relaxed.
Not everyone walks around with a cellphone glued to their ear or a Blackberry strapped to their hip. Many of the cars are from the 1950s and it's not unusual to pass horse-drawn wagons as farmers take their produce to the market.
Before the revolution in 1959, Cuba was a hotbed for gambling and partying, a mini-Las Vegas for the rich and famous. All of that changed when Fidel Castro brought in his socialist government and the U.S. imposed its embargo on this tiny Caribbean island.
Time stood still for many years, and for the past decade Cuba has been trying to catch up.
More and more mega-hotels with all the modern conveniences are being built each year, and newer cars are being added to the roads. The government recently legalized the sale and purchase of all makes and models of automobiles for its citizens. Prior to this, unrestricted sales had been limited only to cars built before the revolution.
Does this mean all those old '52 Chevys and big-finned Bel Airs will disappear and Cuba's laid-back lifestyle become a thing of the past? It definitely won't happen overnight, but that's all the more reason to choose Cuba as your prize destination in this year's Winnipeg Free Press Great Winter Escape contest.
The prize package, sponsored by the Free Press, Transat Holidays, Meliá Hotels and Ixtapa Travel, includes return airfare from Winnipeg to Varadero, Cuba, and seven nights' all-inclusive accommodation at the beautiful TRYP Peninsula Varadero. TRYP Peninsula is part of Meliá Hotels International, a family-run, publicly traded company based in Spain. Meliá Hotels was established in 1956 and currently has 350 hotels in 35 countries worldwide.
Located on one of Cuba's best beaches, the TRYP Peninsula is a 4-1/2-star resort featuring a mixture of old and new. The hotel is laid out like an old-style plantation with 20 two- and three-storey villas surrounded by lush tropical grounds. It has all the new conveniences to ensure top-notch North American-style comfort, including junior-suite accommodation with separate sitting area.
"I love this resort," says Corwin Kostenchuk, general manager of sponsor Ixtapa Travel, adding that TRYP Peninsula Varadero has been one of Transat Holidays' top-selling getaways for many years.
"The grounds are beautiful and really well-laid-out, with the beach and ocean right there. It's in a perfect location. In Cuba, they limit how high hotels can be built, so you won't get any restricted views or that closed-in feeling -- just wide open space. And the beach stretches for miles, just miles of soft, white sand and turquoise-blue water."
The soft sand and sparkling ocean are definitely the main attraction for people travelling to this laid-back Caribbean paradise, but the culture and history also play a huge part. Canadians form the largest group of tourists travelling to Cuba, with the majority going from December to March. The Cuban Tourist Board reports that just under one million Canadians visited the island last year, a number they're confident will be surpassed this year.
Just ask last year's Great Winter Escape winners, Larry and Audrey McCrady. how much they enjoyed their trip to Varadero. Although they hadn't taken a winter sun vacation before, the couple had travelled to Europe and were impressed by the similarities they saw in Cuba.
"The old cars, the old buildings, the history -- we loved Havana," says Larry McCrady.
"They try to sell you lots of stuff, but you expect that. And once you get over it, the experience was really great. The history there is amazing. We went to where writer Ernest Hemingway used to hang out and heard stories and saw what it was like back then."
The Havana day-trip is probably the most popular excursion offered by Transat Holidays, especially for first-time visitors. Tours can include a trip to the Havana Cigar Factory, revealing how those famous Cuban cigars are made, or tickets to the renowned Tropicana Show in the evening. The Tropicana Show is like a Las Vegas revue. with beautiful costumes, songs and dances reflecting the Cuban culture.
Music is a critical component of the Cuban landscape and you can't venture far without hearing someone playing and swaying to the mambo beat. The dance was invented in Cuba and, if you venture into downtown Varadero, there are many bands in the sidewalk cafés just waiting to perform for a small tip. They'll want you to purchase their CD -- the music will be great, but be careful as often the sound quality will be poor.
In the heart of Varadero, there's an excellent shopping market with everything from Che Guevara T-shirts to beautiful jewelry and unique statues, many made of recycled material. The artists are not always there each day, so if you see something it's important to buy it before it disappears.
If shopping is not high on your list, try a tour through the Cuban countryside. You can take the Rambo six-wheel truck tour to Guanayara Farm Natural Park and hike through the mountains to the El Rocio Waterfall. You spend one night in a hotel on the mountain and visit the colonial city of Trinidad (declared a World heritage Site by UNESCO) the following day. Then you drive through Cienfuegos and Santa Clara to see the mausoleum of Che Guevara.
Almost everywhere you go in Cuba, there are references to the revolution and the historical importance of guerilla fighter Che Guevara. His image is everywhere and is woven into the history of the country. Ernesto "Che" Guevara was born in Argentina and assisted Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in overthrowing the dictatorship of Batista in 1959.
While McCrady loved the culture and history of the country, he was equally impressed by the vast Caribbean Sea surrounding Cuba.
"Living on the Prairies, it's something you never get to see. We have crossed the ocean, but never had a holiday beside the ocean."
The beauty of the Caribbean makes it easy to want to leave the land and explore what's beneath the waves. Transat Holidays has a wide selection of tours for the underwater adventurers. You can opt for a snorkelling adventure that takes you to coral beach and a beautiful underwater reef located just 15 metres offshore. There's also a chance to swim with the dolphins in a natural mangrove lagoon, or spend the day on a luxurious catamaran complete with open bar and a typical Cuban seafood and chicken dinner.
The choices are endless, but your first choice must be to enter the contest for a chance at winning this great trip. Simply fill out the ballot in Saturday's Travel section and drop it off at the Free Press, 1355 Mountain Ave., or at Ixtapa Travel, 105-3025 Portage Ave. Ballots can be mailed to Winnipeg Free Press, P.O. Box 1800, 1355 Mountain Ave., R3C 3R1. Winnipeg.
You can also enter online at www.winnipegfreepress.com/contests (limit one email entry per unique email address per day).
If you're a six-day Winnipeg Free Press home subscriber, you'll also win a $200 gift certificate at Spa Lifestyle boutique, located at 2001 Henderson Hwy.
TRYP PENNINSULA VARADERO
* Features a huge swimming pool, a spa, beauty salon and boutique on the property.
* There is 24-hour room service (extra charge), a main buffet restaurant and two a la carte restaurants (Italian and International), plus a snack bar, swim-up bar and disco.
* Activities include snorkelling, pedal boats, windsurfing, kayaking, tennis, ping pong archery and pool. There is a gym complete with sauna and steam bath and even mini-golf for the kids.
* Junior suite accommodation in large rooms with balcony or terrace, coffee-maker, CD player, hairdryer and iron.
Next Week: Panama, Westin Playa Bonita
To enter online, go to www.winnipegfreepress.com/contests