Havana or Varadero -where to go on my annual February vacation? Either one would be a great place to be in the middle of a Canadian winter but where would I enjoy myself the most?
I know Havana, I love Havana, but I've been there twice before. Now Varadero I've never been to and the lure of the white sandy beaches coupled with the crystal clear turquoise blue water won out. The fact that my destination was just over three hours from Toronto followed by a short half hour bus ride to my hotel didn't hurt either! I booked my trip and looked forward to seven lazy days on the beach.
Check in at the MeliaVaradero was painless - I even managed to get upgraded to an ocean view room at no extra charge.
My first day was spent getting oriented - exploring the lush hotel grounds, the adjacent properties, wandering along the beach, going in and out of the ocean and getting the obligatory "first day on vacation sun burn." I travel a lot and yet still do that - I get caught up in what I'm doing and forget the lotion. Don't do that in Cuba, it's hot and you will burn.
Hungry from my day of exploring, I wandered into the hotel's buffet restaurant for dinner. What a pleasant surprise. Typically, I loathe the all-inclusive "hurry up and eat twice as much as you normally would and get out of the brightly lit cafeteria style dining hall" but this restaurant was different. The dining area was located in the centre while the food was served, tucked behind beautiful archways, at the sides of the room.
Ambient light and soft Cuban music transformed what could have been just another all-you-can-eat buffet into a pleasurable dining experience.
I went to bed happy and warm. And so began my stay in Varadero.
Day two was spent doing pretty much the same thing as day one - wandering around eating and drinking, chatting with other tourists, trying to read my book but getting caught up watching the staff running the daily activities ... salsa lessons, Spanish classes, and bingo. That night I dined a la carte in the hotel's steak house and had kebobs to die for. Later at the piano bar in the lobby, I met a couple of architects from Algeria.They convinced me I should skip the hotel's Karaoke Disco and head out with them to Mambo, a local nightclub.
Never one to shy away from adventure, I piled into the cab and headed out on the town with my two new friends. There are several decent tourist bars to choose from in Varadero and Mambo was gaining in popularity after their recent renovations.
Paying the $10 CUC entry fee (about CDN$ 13 which included two drinks!) we went in. Jammed with tourists from around the world, dancing to Top 20 North American songs, neon lights and dance floor fog swirling around us, we lasted a respectful three hours. It was fun but truth be told, it was lacking in the Cuban flavour I was looking for.
After a nice sleep-in, I headed to the beach to assume the position. Beach bag with book, sunglasses, hat, and suntan lotion on my right, fruity rum drink alongside large water bottle jammed into the sand on my left, I lay back on the lounger and let my thoughts wander. And that's when it happened. I started to think about Havana and what I could be doing there, the sights, the sounds and what I wanted to see but hadn't the last two times I'd gone. I got up, went to the front desk and booked a cab to take me there the next day. I was so excited ... I was going on vacation, on my vacation!
The trip from Varadero into Havana was quite interesting a two and a half hour drive, along the ocean and through little towns and stretches of highway bordered by thick greenery.
Coming into the city was like coming home. Even though I've only been there twice before, it evokes in me a curious sense of comfort. The water, the buildings, the people, heck, even the traffic, is a combination I just love. I couldn't wait to get out of the car and walk around.
I started at the big feria or artisans' market where I'd bought three paintings the last time I was down. Crammed with rows and rows of art, jewellery, pottery, clothes, and general touristy paraphernalia, this is the place to shop in Old Havana. It's the two rows on the side that I like best oil paintings, watercolours, and charcoal etchings at very reasonable prices by incredibly talented artists.
Now here's where I confess that after the market I did not go to the Capitolio, nor did I pop into one of the many bars that Ernest Hemingway used to patronize, nor did I tour any of Havana's 50 plus museums. I just wandered around and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Havana.
As you could imagine, the sights are incredible and yes, oft times you are reminded of the cover of the Buena Vista Social Club! How unchanged it all is ... old cars are everywhere, live music spills onto the street from every other bar, and the buildings, reputed to be the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in Latin America, are overwhelmingly beautiful in their various states of decay (and thankfully, more and more these days, repair). To me, just to walk around and take it all in is heaven.
After spending a couple of hours wandering around the squares that make up Old Havana, I headed down to the Malecon(the spectacular boardwalk that runs the length of the city) and made my way along to the Hotel Nacional. I love this hotel; it's truly magical and old world charm at its best. On my first visit to Havana I went to see a water ballet there about 18 or so water ballerinas performing in the very same pool Esther Williams once swam in!
Checking my watch, I realized I only had half an hour until my cab to Varadero was due to pick me up. Where did the day go? Did I have enough time to check in on a Flamenco troupe I knew was practicing a couple blocks away? No. Could I order a world famous Cubanosandwich? Probably notenough time. Did I have time to order a Mojito? Absolutely!
And then it was time to go. My vacation on my vacation had come quickly to an end and I wondered if maybe I should have stayed in Havana for another day.