Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where time stands still

Tour historic Havana and relax on beaches of Varadero

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It may be only 150 kilometres away from Florida in distance but it might as well be light years away in ideology and a way of life.

Whether you're touring the historic capital of Havana or shopping along the tourist zone in Varadero, you won't find any big-box stores, golden arches, Starbucks or Tim Horton's.

What you will find are oodles of vintage American cars (pre-1959), horse-drawn carriages, cobble-stone streets, intimate courtyards with lush gardens and friendly folk who go about their business with-out cellphones glued to their ears, or thumbs typing out tweets in a social-media frenzy.

It's like stepping back in time. Havana, particularly Old Havana, should be savoured slowly, like a Cuba Libre or Mojito, the popular rum-based drinks.

The best way to do this is with a travel itinerary that includes a Havana/Varadero combo (four days in the capital and 10 at an all-inclusive resort in Varadero).

Our first excursion away from our five-star digs at the Melia Habana was to the historic Hotel Nacional that, in its heyday, welcomed the likes of Winston Churchill (who loved Cuban cigars), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, stars Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, writer Ernest Hemingway and the who's who of the gangster world.

We were there to enjoy a poolside dinner and a performance of traditional Cuban music by the Grupo Compay Segundo, named after one of the principal musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club that toured the world and was the subject of a TV documentary.

The total cost for this fab night out in Havana was 25 CUCs (convertible pesos) or the equivalent of $25 Cdn.

A full-day escorted bus tour of Old Havana for $19 CUCs was even a better bargain.

Our first stop was the spacious Revolutionary Square, where giant images of national heroes such as Jose Marti, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara look down at the throngs of tourists from all over the world (except the U.S. because of the long-lived embargo on trade "with the enemy").

Here you will find the National Library and many government ministries housed in impressive buildings, some clad in scaffolding and others in need of restoration and sprucing up.

Old Havana is an architectural museum on a grand scale. One can just imagine how beautiful it once was. Alas, time and neglect have tarnished this once-grandiose capital. But with some help from the United Nations (it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the government has under-taken enormous efforts to help pre-serve and restore the lustre of Old Havana.

What it needs is the infusion of private investment. But that part of the story is yet to be written.

The city was founded by the Spanish in 1519 and, with its natural harbour, it became a major transit point for galleons loaded with looted treasure from the Americas before they made their way across the Atlantic to Spain.

A vestige from colonial times is the impressive Castillo del Morro, a fortress that stands guard over the entrance to Havana Bay.

A stop on our tour, the so-called castle provides a good vantage point for taking that postcard-perfect picture of Havana.

Another popular stop on our tour was at a rum factory tucked away in a colonial home where, for three pesos we enjoyed a flaming cappuccino.

The experience was made that much more delightful when the lights went out and the fiery, rum-laced liquid was poured into cups from on high like rivulets of lava.

Here we were able to buy an aged-in-the-barrel Ron (rum) Bocoy Legendario and, if you were so inclined, a good Havana cigar that Winston would have drooled over.

If you are a history buff, you'll love Old Havana.

Besides the Spanish influence, there are vestiges from the time that the French and English war ships came to visit. There are still some English cannons prominently displayed.

Alas, the only ships (other than cargo) that come calling are those from Europe -- and there are few of those. Because of the embargo, cruise ships on Caribbean itineraries from home ports in the U.S. aren't allowed to dock.

Enough of history and politics. Let's get down to the real reason why we're here in winter. It's for the sun, surf and sand. And Varadero, about 140 kilometres east of Havana, is the place to kick back and enjoy a laid-back sun-and rum-soaked vacation.

The Tryp Peninsula (part of the Melia chain) where we stayed at is one of several four- and five-star all-inclusive resorts on this narrow spit of land (20 km long and only 1.2 km wide) that draw more than one million tourists each year.

And the big drawing point here is the fab, soft-sand beach that stretches for miles. The beach scene includes snorkelling, pedal-boating and paragliding. And you aren't pestered by time-share sellers like you are in Mexico.

Our plantation-style resort featured lush, well-groomed grounds with palm-lined undulating promenades and floral hedges, shimmering swimming pools, an open-air theatre, spa and specialty restaurants in addition to the buffet area approached via a lamplit footbridge over a decorative pool. Here you can dine in or alfresco.

And music is everywhere, wafting through the tropical air, emanating from big productions at the theatre or from smaller venues at the bar or disco. The entertainment at the resort is first-rate.

One night at the pool and right below our balcony we were entertained by acrobatic swimmers a la Cirque du soleil.

Except they performed under a full moon -- all done to a hip-swivelling Latin beat.

Here, in the tourist zone of Varadero, you will hear a veritable babel of foreign languages: Slavic from Russia and Eastern Europe, Spanish from Spain and South America and French and English (it's a good place to meet fellow Canadians from Ontario and Quebec). But, and it's their loss, no Americans.

Cubans may rank near the bottom on the per-capita income scale, but when it comes to joie de vivre, friendliness and hospitality, in my books, they're numero uno.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Transat Holidays, the tour operator we used, has had a long presence in Cuba and has a network of partners along with a team of 300 on-site reps. Direct flights from Vancouver take about 5 1/2 hours to Varadero and a little longer return.

A good bang for the buck is Option Plus, which gives you priority check-in and a bag-full of inflight goodies.

GETTING AROUND: An open-air double-decker bus makes the rounds at the Varadero strip for shopping excursions. Vintage taxis are readily avail-able and cheap but make sure you take the ones with blue plates (they are government sanctioned and are covered by insurance).

EXCURSIONS: There are plenty of excursions to choose from, including tours of Old Havana, marine adventures, steam train and sugar refinery combos, marine safari at Cayo Blanco, swimming with the dolphins and jet-skiing through the mangroves.

CURRENCY: One convertible peso (CUC) is equivalent to about $1 Cdn. Make sure you save 25 CUCs to pay the airport tax on departure.

INTERNET: Some hotels like the Melina Habana have Wi-Fi but they will charge you (about 8 CUCs an hour).

The Internet service at the Tryp (5 CUCs for half-hour) was intermittent so I used the one at the resort next door.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 D2

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