CUBANS SAY it’s always a good time to visit their homeland. Located just off the coast of southern Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, the island enjoys a sub-tropical climate which is ideal for year round travel. The dry, sunny period falls between December and April and is the island’s peak tourist season. So, why not take a week or two this spring to explore this unique Caribbean island?
he largest island in the Greater Antilles, at slightly under 800 miles long and 100 miles wide, Cuba’s coastline stretches for some 5,000 miles, sheltering countless sandy white beaches and secluded little bays, in addition to the seemingly unending string of cays and islets.
The island is not just a fantastic beach resort though – Cuba’s inhabitants have blended their cultures and traditions over time and ensured that their country has often found itself a focal point of world history. Add to this a broad artistic and cultural heritage, and you have a national identity that is acknowledged worldwide.
The most famous destination on the island is Havana. There’s an air of faded glory about the city – the locals cruise the streets in vintage American cars and Latin music pours out of the countless cafés and bars dotted among the amazing Spanish colonial architecture on show – albeit faded and peeling, although much is now under restoration.
Here, as with everywhere he went, Hemingway cultivated a reputation as a man larger than life – a figure who could drink a bar dry and reel in bigger marlin than a professional fisherman. The legend lives on in Havana and the old haunts play up their status as Hemingway landmarks. These include the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where ‘Papa’ polished For Whom the Bell Tolls, and in the La Floridita bar, the ‘cradle of the daiquiri’, where Hemingway would regularly drink 12 double daiquiris in an afternoon. The bar has named his favourite cocktail ‘the Papa’, a lethal combination of ice, limejuice and a double shot of rum.
Away from the bars, it’s worth wandering around the Cementerio de Colón, one of the world’s largest cemeteries, where Columbus is believed to have been buried for a while in the late 1500s, and where Korda shot the famous photo of Che Guevara.
It is also worth taking the time to visit the El Capitolio Building. Built in the late 1920s, the Capitolio, a replica of the original in Washington DC, once served as Cuba’s Senate and House of Representatives. Finally, step back in time and explore El Castillo del Morro, built in 1559 to protect Havana’s harbour from Caribbean pirates and invading armies.
Of course, many visitors come to Cuba simply to relax on the beach. And whatever kind of beach you like, you will find yourself spoilt for choice – pick between long, wide white strips of sand, finely textured soft dunes, dark volcanic sands, great natural rock pools … every kind of Caribbean beach is to be found on Cuba. All benefit from clean, warm waters, with 20 to 30 metre visibility and no strong currents, thanks to the reef formations that surround the island and shelter the seashore.
The island’s main beach resort is at Varadero, two hours drive from Havana on the north west coast. Other mainland resorts are to be found near Trinidad on the south coast, further along the north coast at Santa Lucia and Guardalavaca and on the east coast outside Santiago de Cuba. Resorts have also sprung up on the islands of Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo.
Many resorts in the island are all-inclusive and offer great value for money. One of the main benefits of this type of holiday is that it’s so easy to budget for the cost of the whole stay – the hotel room, meals, snacks, drinks, entertainment and tips are, as the name suggests, all included.
If you can drag yourself away from the beautiful beaches, Cuba’s interior is also worth exploring. The Sierra del Rosario and Sierra de los Organos mountain ranges provide some of the most scenic locations in Cuba, with steep hills, lush valleys and hidden caves. The Escambray Mountains to the north of Trinidad and the Sierra Maestre that borders Santiago de Cuba also offer dramatic and almost entirely unspoiled terrain. On the south coast of Cuba, just to the west of Cienfuegos, the Zapata Peninsula is host to Cuba’s greatest concentration of wildlife, with dense mangrove swamps protecting a wealth of bird and wildlife.
The El Nicho waterfalls are one of central Cuba’s best kept secrets, with bathing pools and gorgeous mountain vistas. Just 90 minutes from Cienfuegos, via the rough road at Crucecitas, the waterfalls are tucked into the Sierra del Escambray, so you’ll need to hire a 4WD to reach these chilly cascades.
To appreciate the local flora and fauna in a more formal setting, visit the Jardín Botánico Soledad. This 232-acre plot was founded in 1901 by US sugar baron Edwin F Atkins, who intended to study varieties of sugarcane but began planting exotic tropical trees from around the world. It is one of Cuba’s biggest gardens and now houses 2,000 species of plants, including 23 types of bamboo, 65 of fig and 280 of palm – enough to satisfy even the most ardent of botanists.
PDM verdict: From the days of Spanish colonisation to the dawn of the Castro era and the present day, Cuba has by turns intrigued, fascinated and surprised those who visited. Highly recommended for some welcome winter relaxation.