Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

GREAT WINTER ESCAPE CONTEST: Cuba libre!

Caribbean island a perfect cocktail for winter-weary Canadians

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Cuba is renowned as one of the most colourful and compelling holiday destinations in the Caribbean. The island nation boasts a wealth of stunning colonial architecture, a fascinating history, roads filled with brightly restored vintage vehicles, sizzling music and unforgettable beaches.

With a general travel ban still in effect for Americans, Canadians make up almost half the country's two million visitors each year. There is much to make a Canadian feel welcome. Canadian flags flutter in the breeze at many hotels. Alberta beef is featured on the menus of finer restaurants. The country even hosts a Terry Fox Run to aid cancer research.

If you decide to experience the island's hospitality, the next step is deciding what part of the country to visit. Here's a look at four of the country's major tourism areas.

CAYO SANTA MARIA

Every once in a while, you discover a little slice of heaven; a vacation spot so perfect you're afraid to talk about it for fear it will be overrun.

The neighbouring isles of Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Ensenachos, about 300 kilometres east of Havana, are such a place. Like many of Cuba's vacation spots, these islands offer the perfect vacation cocktail to winter-weary Canadians. Long stretches of white sand, plenty of sunshine and postcard-perfect views help us forget our ice-and snow-covered homes.

This area and its secluded beaches were once the destination of choice for former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, which led to the idea the area should be developed for tourists.

An environmentally friendly causeway was constructed from the mainland to Cayo Santa Maria (the louder and livelier island, where most of the hotels are located), Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Las Brujas, where development is slated to increase.

Since much of this development is relatively new, visitors will find first-rate accommodations and some of the best cuisine in Cuba.

Underlying the development are hopes and dreams that one day Americans will help fill this and other Cuban properties. In the meantime, Canadians can think of this as their own private paradise, which they share with a few Europeans.

While here, it's worth a trip to the nearby city of Santa Clara, home to an international airport and well-known for its political and military history. This is where a decisive victory by forces led by Che Guevara in late 1958 brought the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista to an end. Monuments, museums and a mausoleum honour the memory of Guevara, a national hero in Cuba.

CAYO COCO

Working your way from Havana toward Holguin, the next tourist area is Cayo Coco, about 500 kilometres from Havana.

Come sunrise or sunset, cast your eyes upwards. It's the time of day when pink flamingos are on the move, gliding through the air.

First-time visitors might find it difficult to believe Cayo Coco is as beautiful as it appears. The waters of the jade sea are are as warm as a bathtub. The sky is so blue it looks like something an artist painted on canvas.

Not surprisingly, Ernest Hemingway (a longtime fan of Cuba) immortalized this setting. Cayo Coco -- and other islands that are part of the little archipelago of Jardines del Rey --became the backdrop to his novel Islands in the Stream.

It's not just flamingos that inhabit this part of Cuba. More than 158 species of birds can be spotted here, ranging from the miniature hummingbird and cuckoo to the heron and the white ibis (coco) that gave the island its name.

Travellers have also begun stopping here in greater numbers, so a healthy selection of hotels and resorts have sprung up along this 22-kilometre stretch of beach.

Snorkelling, sailing, windsurfing and fishing opportunities abound. The world-renowned coral reef adds to the splendour of the area's natural attractions.

HOLGUIN

When Christopher Columbus saw the Holguin area of Cuba in 1492, he is reported to have said it was "the most beautiful land eyes have ever seen."

The statement is held dear by many Cubans in this area and has resulted in many statues, parks, plaques and museums that pay tribute to the area's history and Columbus's arrival. These features offer a rich historical experience for a visitor to Holguin, Cuba's fourth-largest city, located about 800 kilometres east of Havana.

Theatre, symphony and ballet all have homes in the Holguin area. Other attractions include historic plazas, a village predating Columbus's arrival and a musical organ factory that showcases traditional Cuban workmanship.

Outside of town, peaceful beaches, verdant hills and tropical forests are still largely undeveloped. The area has significant deposits of cobalt and nickel -- the second biggest such deposits in the world -- but the landscape has been left wild, which has led to the growth of ecotourism.

Diving has also become popular, especially at the crescent-shaped beach of Playa Esmeralda and the white sand ribbon of Guardalavaca Beach.

Excursions to the small island of Cayo Saetia are an option for those wanting to get a glimpse of animals. Here, antelopes, zebras and buffalo roam freely. Jeep safaris and horseback rides are two ways to take in the area.

VARADERO

Varadero remains the No. 1 tourist destination in Cuba, decades after opening its doors to the world.

Many travellers have dubbed Varadero (about 140 kilometres east of Havana) the world's most beautiful beach. One stroll along the expanse of flour-soft sand demonstrates why.

The water sparkles in shades of blue and turquoise. Tropical breezes keep the temperature at a comfortable average of 24 to 26 C year-round. Palm trees provide ambience and shade. Walking barefoot through the white sand is an infinitely more appealing venture than trudging through wintry streets in snow boots.

It might be difficult to tear yourself away from the beach but, if you do, there's no shortage of activities. Try a Jet Ski, a horseback ride or Jeep tour. Or check out a restored fortress, underground cavern system, military museum or vibrant wetlands area.

Even if you decide to spend all your time at the beach, don't worry. Even Christopher Columbus -- who landed on the island in 1492 -- had a tough time leaving Cuba's beautiful shores.

-- Postmedia News

Visit winnipegfreepress.com/escape to enter the Great Winter Escape Contest.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2011 E6

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