By Rick VanSickle
VARADERO, Cuba — The ferocious storm that brought the east coast of the United States to its knees in late January with a record mountain of snow was but a blip on the radar for our Sunwing jet that simply steered around the wintery Armageddon before gently touching down in this Caribbean paradise where the sun always shines.
Well, except on this day, where the storm of the century had left behind a few pesky rain showers and a firm breeze that made the usual 30 C temperatures feel like 20 C. But by the time we cleared customs, got in our bus and reached our resort on the far tip of the Varadero peninsula it was as if nothing had happened. All was calm; all was bright (and sunny). Pass me a rum and cola and let’s get this thing started!
Cuba is like that: a virtual guarantee of great weather, perfect beaches, and a stress-free week of relaxation.
This socialist nation has a lot going for it, especially for visiting Canadians who think of Cuba as their own personal playground. It is Canadians, along with a few Spaniards, Russians, South Americans and Brits, who bring needed tourism dollars to the country by staying in any number of the resorts that dot the island’s coastline.
It’s a quaint and peaceful destination that has been free of Americans (and Americanization) since Fidel Castro’s Revolution in 1969 when the dictator kicked them all out, took their businesses and began what would become an almost 50-year staring contest. All that is ending now that U.S. President Barack Obama has lifted trade embargos and set in motion a timeline for Americans to freely visit the country and do business there once again.
Some say Cuba will change — for the worse — once American companies start developing resorts and filling the existing hotels with throngs of vacationers. Perhaps, but I like to think that Canadians have built up close ties to the nation and will always be favoured by the Cuban people.
It is a special place. The deep, white sand beaches are legendary, and the sun and pleasant warm, humid climate is nearly guaranteed during the winter months. And the price just can’t be beat.
It’s really the beaches and weather that keep bringing back tourists year after.
My wife and I returned to Cuba for the first time since our children were born (18 years ago, if you’re counting). We have now been here five times, four of them in the Varadero area.
We leave our golf clubs at home because there’s really only one golf course on the entire island, the Varadero Golf Club designed by Canadian architect Les Furber, and unless you are staying near the course, it becomes a major hassle to get back and forth.
Almost all the resorts are all-inclusive, meaning all food and drink is included in the price. The food has vastly improved in 18 years, but still lacks, shall we say, flavour.
Let me tell you about the booze.
I kept a diary of each day’s intake (for research purposes only, of course) starting with Day 1.
• Cuba libre (cola, lime, white rum, ice cubes)
• Margarita (tequila, triple sec, lime, crushed ice)
• Daiquiri (rum, citrus juice, sugar, crushed ice)
• Brandy (served with a Cohiba Robusto cigar)
• Cristal (Cuban beer)
• Sparkling wine (from Spain)
• Havana Club 7-year-old dark rum (served neat with a Monte Cristo #5)
By day two, I cut out all drinks served with crushed ice (local water in all forms can be, shall we say, troublesome). The “house” wines are generally from Spain (not bad, not great), Chile (so-so) and Argentina (a little less so-so). We brought a couple bottles of our own wine, a 1989 Chateau Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville for a special birthday, a Jackson-Triggs Reserve Merlot 2012, and a bottle of Camus Cognac VSOP Elegance. By the end of our trip my consumption had happily found a comfortable ebb and flow: Cerveza, aged dark rum (straight up, no ice), a Cognac nightcap and a boatload of Spanish sparkling wine. Life was good.
A pattern was setting in. Breakfast, beach, lunch by the ocean-side grill, cervezas by the pool, nap, pre-dinner drinks (aged rum), dinner, sparkling wine, visit to the Cuban cigar store on the promenade and more 7-year-old run with a cappuccino as we settled in to watch the nightly entertainment by the pool provided by any number of Cuban dancers/singers/magicians. It was a routine that needed a boost every now and then.
“Concierge! Can you hook us up with one of those pre-Revolution cars we see roaming the streets with a driver and a guide for a day-trip to Havana?”
The next morning, a lime green 1957 Ford Fairlane was waiting at the entrance of our hotel to take us on the two-hour drive to Cuba’s bustling capital city.
We had three goals: A Cuban cigar factory, a government Cuban cigar store (do not EVER buy Cuban cigars from any place other than a Cuban-run store as they are guaranteed to be fake) and the Floridita, a bar in old Havana made famous by U.S. Nobel-prize winning author Ernest Hemingway, and home to perhaps the world’s greatest daiquiri.
The car was a hoot, a bit of a clunker that spewed oil at an alarming rate out the back exhaust pipe (more of a problem for the people behind us), and a photo attraction wherever we stopped. It got us to where we wanted to go without any issues.
The La Corona Cigar Factory is Cuba’s largest, a multi-level facility with over 600 employees. About half the workers are cigar rollers, churning out up to 150 cigars a day each in a variety of sizes for brands such as Romeo y Julieta, Hoyo de Monterrey, Cuaba, Por Larrañaga, Saint Luis Rey, San Cristóbal de la Habana and the world’s most popular Cuban cigar Montecristo.
The tour of the facility is quite restricted but we did get access to the rolling floor where most of the action takes place. The workers are divided into sections depending on the style of cigar they are rolling and seem perfectly happy with the job.
The smell of fresh cigar leaf and burning cigars is pleasing to the senses as you pass by the rollers, some who are smoking what they are rolling, while others are smoking cigarettes. Each worker is allowed to sample the cigars they roll during the day and can take home five cigars of their choice every day.
As I pass by one of the workers he offers up five Cohiba Siglo VIs in a neatly wrapped package. “Ten pesos,” he whispers. I quickly search my pocket for 10 pesos (about $10 US) and give it to him. He stuffs the cigars quickly into my pocket.
This isn’t allowed at the factory but management doesn’t fuss too much over it as long as the transaction is discreet. The workers are far better off with cash than five cigars, and for me, where that cigar retails for up to $50 in Canada, I just saved $240.
They don’t actually sell cigars at the factory so we head to one of Havana’s top government cigar stores where I loaded up.
But not before enjoying one of those famous daiquiris at the Floridita. And the rumours are true — the Papa Hemingway Daiquiri, made with a double shot of white rum, fresh lime juice, grapefruit juice and maraschino with crushed ice and served in tall glass — was the best cocktail I have ever had.