Let Cuba work its magic on you

ENDA MULLEN dis­cov­ers a Cuban hol­i­day of­fers the best of all worlds

Solihull News - - TRAVEL -

CAST your eyes sky­wards in ru­ral Cuba and you won’t need to wait long see a huge rap­tor soar­ing on a ther­mal.

It’s a turkey vul­ture. Af­ter a while you re­alise they’re al­most as com­mon as crows in the UK

oing to the other end of the avian spec­trum, if you’re lucky, you might spot a hum­ming­bird hov­er­ing over a kalei­do­scope of trop­i­cal flow­ers.

From huge turkey vul­tures to tiny hum­ming­birds – Cuba is home to the bee hum­ming­bird, the small­est bird in the world – this is a daz­zlingly di­verse coun­try.

Most trav­ellers who visit tend to evan­ge­lise about its mer­its and it’s easy to see why. It’s a coun­try that be­guiles and be­witches, where you can fully ex­pe­ri­ence its cul­ture and his­tory but also en­joy a fa­mil­iar sun­shine hol­i­day.

Ha­vana is a must- visit and most tourists head­ing yo Cuba fly to the cap­i­tal. An overnight stay out­bound was just enough to get a bite- sized ex­pe­ri­ence of this vi­brant city in an­tic­i­pa­tion of re­turn­ing a few days later.

Cuba’s tourist in­dus­try is grow­ing, with the cur­rent fo­cus on Villa Clara province, the cap­i­tal of which, Santa Clara, is about a five- hour drive from Ha­vana and it­self a city of some note.

What could have been a fairly anony­mous back­wa­ter in­stead has a very spe­cial place in Cuban his­tory, as it was cen­tral to the 1959 revo­lu­tion that still de­fines the coun­try.

In De­cem­ber 1958 Ernesto ‘ Che’ Gue­vara led a group of 300 rebels who suc­cess­fully took the town and it proved the turn­ing point in the war against the forces of the then dic­ta­tor Gen­eral Ful­gen­cio Batista.

An ar­moured train sent to re­in­force the gov­ern­ment forces in Santa Clara was de­railed and the be­lea­guered troops gave up in the face of a de­ter­mined and well- or­gan­ised rebel as­sault.

Re­al­is­ing the game was up, Batista fled the coun­try by plane.

Tren Blin­dado, an open- air mu­seum con­sist­ing of the car­riages of that ar­moured train, tells the story, but the real sight in Santa Clara is the Che Gue­vara Mau­soleum.

It’s a me­mo­rial on the out­skirts of the city ded­i­cated to the Ar­gen­tinian rev­o­lu­tion­ary who was to be­come Cuba’s most fa­mous son.

It’s cer­tainly hard to miss. A 22- foot bronze statue of Che is the dom­i­nat­ing fea­ture of this clas­sic Stal­in­ist me­mo­rial – bru­tal­ist and stark but with a strange beauty.

There are two parts: the first is the mau­soleum with its serene, chapel­like feel where vaults con­tain the re­mains of Che and 29 rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who died with him in Bo­livia in Oc­to­ber 1967. Che’s re­mains, and those of his com­rades, were in­terred with full mil­i­tary hon­ours in 1997 and an eter­nal flame lit by Fidel Cas­tro.

There’s also a mu­seum ded­i­cated to Che, con­tain­ing ev­ery­thing from guns, pipes and uni­forms to child­hood pho­tos, of­fer­ing a very hu­man in­sight into the life of the man whose im­age is ever- present through­out the coun­try.

The fa­mil­iar kind of hol­i­day to be had in Cuba is an all- in­clu­sive ho­tel stay with the op­por­tu­nity to un­wind and en­joy stun­ning beaches. Un­til now, most Cuba- bound Bri­tish hol­i­day­mak­ers, around 200,000 of whom vis­ited last year, will have gone to the es­tab­lished tourist hot- spot, Va­radero.

Cayo Santa Maria in Villa Clara province, an is­land en­tirely given over to tourism just off Cuba’s north coast, of­fers an al­ter­na­tive. It’s smallscale com­pared to Va­radero but per­haps all the bet­ter for that.

Cayo Santa Maria’s tourism jour­ney started in 1995 when a cause­way con­nect­ing it to the main­land was com­pleted. In 1999 there were just 24 ho­tel rooms, by 2012 there were 5,682 and that fig­ure has now al­most dou­bled to 10,572 rooms in 17 ho­tels.

The ho­tels in Cayo Santa Maria are spread out and dif­fer in both style and char­ac­ter.

My home for five days was Ho­tel Dhawa. One of the new­est in the re­sort, it’s ac­tu­ally lo­cated on a sep­a­rate is­land called Cayo Las Bru­jas.

As an all- in­clu­sive ex­pe­ri­ence it com­pares well with oth­ers the world over. The gi­ant swim­ming pool com­plex at the heart of it proved an easy place to while away the hours, par­tic­u­larly with the added at­trac­tion of a swim- up bar.

The beach is just yards away from the ho­tel and a truly beau­ti­ful set­ting, as is pretty much ev­ery beach on Cayo Santa Maria.

Rooms in the Dhawa are spacious and com­fort­able and a buf­fet restau­rant of­fers the op­por­tu­nity to eat in­doors or out, with plenty on of­fer to suit most palates. There’s also an a la carte restau­rant where you can en­joy French, Ital­ian and seafood menus.

In terms of get­ting out and about in Cayo Santa Maria there is a dol­phi­nar­ium on the doorstep and the Las Ter­ran­zas and Las Sali­nas

tourist plazas aim to recre­ate the look and feel of a Cuban town. But while they of­fer en­ter­tain­ment, gift shops and stalls and restau­rants, you’re bet­ter off head­ing fur­ther afield to see the real thing.

Sagua La Grande might be new to the Cuban tourist of­fer­ing but it has a rich his­tory. This once pros­per­ous town has ben­e­fit­ted from some re­cent TLC with for­mer colo­nial build­ings beau­ti­fully re­stored. It also fea­tures two im­pres­sive ho­tels in the shape of Ho­tel Sagua and Pala­cio Are­nas. De­scribed as one of Villa Clara’s ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders, Pala­cio Are­nas is an Art Nou­veau build­ing which once be­longed to a Span­ish mar­quis and com­bines Moor­ish in­flu­ences with re­li­gious stained glass.

Sagua La Grande might still be a work in progress but the town of Reme­dios has been wel­com­ing tourists for longer.

Again, there are some grand colo­nial build­ings to be seen along with won­der­ful churches.

Com­bin­ing the re­lax­ation of all- in­clu­sive re­sort liv­ing with get­ting out and about in Villa Clara proved an en­joy­able com­bi­na­tion be­fore we headed back to Ha­vana to soak up the sights and sounds of this amaz­ing city.

There are two great ways to ex­pe­ri­ence Ha­vana in a hurry, the first is a walk­ing tour of Old Ha­vana on which you am­ble through five cen­turies of his­tory, ab­sorb­ing many of the quintessen­tially Cuban things that give the coun­try its soul, along the way.

Mem­o­rable mo­ments in­cluded the brightly dressed cigar- smok­ing for­tune tellers who in­habit the old squares armed with tarot cards and the buzzing bars and restau­rants that line the streets.

Many seem to have live mu­sic around the clock and you’re pretty much

The Che Mau­soleum is a must see

The beaches, the cities, the peo­ple, the mu­sic and, be­low, the cars – ev­ery­thing about Cuba is a joy­ous sight

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