Road tripping around Cuba

Yes, the beaches are beautiful but hit the highway for a taste of real culture. (Clipart.com)

Yes, the beaches are beautiful but hit the highway for a taste of real culture. (Clipart.com)

TRACY MCLAUGHLIN, SPECIAL TO SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:55 PM ET

As the piercing winter wind whips past your ears and icy snow freezes to the strands of your hair, the lure of sandy white beaches and the warm Caribbean Ocean is like a sweet, cozy dream.

It calls us. And someday -- at least once in our Canadian lifetimes -- it would be a blast to plan at least one getaway to warm, lusty, vibrant Cuba -- the home of the sexy salsa dancing and a place where oceanside resorts are easy on the pocketbook.

But hold on. Here's a twist. Why not make your getaway to all things warm and wonderful a fascinating road trip that will offer a glimpse into another culture and another world. Oh yes, mi amigos, there is much more to this country than getting a golden sun tan.

Cuba is a great place to roam and discover by bus or rental car. The island stretches almost 1,200-km long and covers 105,680 sq. km. The Spanish had possession of Cuba from 1511 to 1898 and the island of about 11 million people is rich in Spanish culture along with African, Amerindian and North American influences.

Visiting the cities, towns and villages of this somewhat mysterious place offers a glimpse into another world.

HAVANA

Cuba's capital city has more than two-million people. A good place to start for the first night is a stay at Hotel Melia Habana in the city centre. The elegant hotel is easy to get to and has many oceanview rooms. It's also a 15-minute drive from one of Cuba's greatest hotspots -- the Tropicana Cabaret.

Wow, this place reminded me of scenes from Mask, where green guy Jim Carrey danced up a storm, but with far more glitter and glitz. Admission to the world famous club -- $60 per person -- includes a small bottle of rum. The open air stage is packed with hundreds of authentic Cuban dancers and singers. Built in 1939, the club has played host to famous performers such as Nat King Cole.

Havana is also a neat city just to roam around in. You can take a horse and wagon taxi ride for about 10 pesos and clippity-clop through old Havana with its amazing Spanish Colonial buildings and colourful markets. While much of the city is in squalor and many of the buildings are crumbling, they are still remarkable.

The Cuban government continues to renovate some of these almost-ancient stone buildings with their giant pillars. And the renovations help create much needed jobs.

VINTAGE CARS

Touring Havana and any of the main roads in Cuba is a blast from the past. Horse-drawn wagons vie with ancient Fords, Buicks and Chevrolets that our parents drove in the 1940s and '50s.

Cuba is a haven for old car lovers. Anywhere else in the world these relics would be in a museum, but in Cuba it's like being in a time warp. Keeping old cars on the road started out of dire necessity -- because of the ongoing U.S. embargo new cars were hard to obtain. Many of these classic cars are now worth $50,000 to $100,000 but Cubans are not allowed to sell or export them. Many proud owners spend all of their free time tinkering to keep their classic cars on the road.

DAMN GOOD CIGARS

This is it. This is the place to go for a puff of the world's greatest cigars.

Cuba has the most highly sought after tobacco in the world. Cohiba, Robaina, Quintero, Partagas and Romeo y Julieta brands, among others, are all hand-rolled from premium tobacco in a process that has changed little over hundreds of years. Like much of the rest of the island, tobacco production in western Cuba is in a time warp. Oxen are still used to work the fields, and tobacco leaves are still hand-picked.

Women do most of the plant handling. The idea is that softer hands are better suited for the delicate process.

I met a traveller who is a true aficionado of Cuban cigars who shared a little of his bliss with me over a big Cuban stogie and a glass of rum.

"I admit it, it's a love affair," says Wes Lafortune, a happily married Calgary journalist who was also seeing Cuba "road trip" style.

"A good cigar is like a good woman -- only better," he quips as a swirl of white smoke from his big stogie gently rolls off his tongue.

Lafortune prefers the Romeo y Julieta number threes, and says the secret of Cuban cigars is all in the hand rolling.

"Honestly, you can tell when it's been handled by a woman."

He says there is something about a good cigar that makes the world disappear.

"Life slows down, all troubles fade," he says with a dreamy look on his face. "Most people don't get that, but Cubans get it."

Unfortunately hurricanes hit Cuban tobacco fields hard earlier this year creating millions of dollars in losses, which will drive up cigar prices.

But Lafortune says he will pay anything for a good Cuban cigar.

SUGAR CANE TO RUM AND MOJITOS

Cuba is also the place where you are bound to meet a friendly local with hand outstretched to offer you a cold Mojito. Made with rum, soda water and a sprig of mint, it's considered the unofficial national drink of Cuba.

Cuba's famous rum is made from sugar cane -- the country's most important crop -- which grows on every second square metre of farmland.

Just outside of the quaint town of Moron you can take a short trip aboard an old steam train that meanders through sugar cane fields. The trip ends at a little forest and outdoor cafe called Rancho Palma, where the Spanish-speaking servers will offer a glass of sugar cane juice or a Mojito and serve a buffet lunch of local dishes.

IN SEARCH OF SECRETS OF THE SEA

I had the opportunity to travel with a scuba diver whose enthusiasm for the secrets hidden beneath the Cuban seas was contagious.

"Cuba has some spectacular scuba diving that will take your breath away," says Stephen Weir, an editor for Diver magazine who has travelled the globe for great diving adventures and says Cuba offers some of the best in the world.

Weir had just dried off after a dive in the Caribbean Sea near the city of Trinidad. This amazing little spot was off the beaten track down a dirt road to the beach that the locals refer to as La Boca -- The Mouth -- where the Ocean drops off 305 metres just off shore.

"It's spectacular, it's like a Grand Canyon in the Ocean," Weir says.

Weir adds that the dive is particularly attractive because the drop is such a short swim from the beach so there is no need to take a boat out to sea.

"I saw the biggest eagle ray I've ever seen," Weir says. "It was massive -- about 8-feet long. It just swam by to check us out."

Weir, who has encountered sharks and whales, says he has no fear of the great fish. "I've learned not to reach out and threaten them and they won't need to defend themselves."

Most resorts offer diving trips and any hotel in Trinidad will know about this place.

"Just ask about The Mouth," he says. "It's absolutely stunning."

HISTORIC CITY AND A LADY IN RED

Cienfuegos is a beautiful city and one of Cuba's chief ports.

The downtown has several remarkable historic buildings from the 1800s.

This is also the place where tourists can stay or come to shop or dine.

At the historic Palicio Del Valle visitors are entertained by the eccentric and amusing Maria del Carmen Iznaga Guillen, a proud and charismatic elder doll who sings and plays piano in the ornate lobby.

As she sings, she sips wine or blows kisses to her amused customers.

The grand lady says she is the niece of Cuba's most celebrated poet, Nicolas Guillen.

"I will play as long as I am on this earth," she says in her thick accent.

"And I will play it my way," she adds, with a provocative little jiggle that makes her jewellery jingle as she moves.

SUN, SAND, SALSA AND RESORT STAYS

While in Cuba, I toured several resorts on the islands of Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria with the intention of telling the world which one was the best.

Sorry, can't do it.

Each of them have their own special points of beauty. All have beautiful sprawling swimming pools, all are right on beautiful beaches.

These tiny cays are off Cuba's north coast, separated from the main island by a long causeway. Some are geared to families with great programs for babies, children and teens. Others are geared for younger or older adults only.

My favourite beach was at Melia Cayo Coco because it was dotted with palm trees and had a huge scenic rock jut off the beach that was fun to explore. This resort is also a real hit with newlyweds, who particularly love the private cottages. These are built on stilts along a lagoon and decorated in smokey pastel hues of pink and blue.

The Occidental Royal Hideaway has a unique twist. It is so spacious that guests -- on their way to dinner, the disco or the beach -- get to hitch rides with friendly staff on the fancy golf carts that travel along the exquisite garden lanes.

Hotel Tryp Cayo Coco has the absolute best lobby and bar with a stunning view that overlooks the swimming pools and beach.

Most resorts offer fun-filled Rio style shows in the evenings complete with colourful costumes and live music. And if you still you still have energy after a day in the sun, there are discos where you can cha-cha- cha the night away.

During the day many resorts also offer dance lessons for the son, the cha-cha-cha, the merengue and salsa. These dances and their hot spicy rhythms will quickly get your hips swaying to the beat. But watch out -- men who spend most of their time at computers may swoon and women may feel like giggly school girls.

Resort rates vary depending on the time of year, but generally I found the difference between prices at a three, four or five star resort to be about $100 per person per week. While the food seemed similar at all of the resorts, the higher the star, the better the plumbing and the better the beaches.

For travel information, visit the Cuba Tourist Board at gocuba.ca -- and go Cuba!


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