Karen and Jock's trip to CUBA, from Varadero to Habana and some, discovers the best beaches in the Caribbean.
With an 8.15PM departure time, Iny and Bill show up at the front door in Dorval at 5.00PM, with Bill giving us the first taste of speed, as he jet's us to Mirabel in record time, so much so that we can have dinner together prior to embarking on an L-1011 Air-Transat loaded to the gills with about 400-500 holiday sun seekers. In order to get a decent seat on an airplane these day's you must pay ten dollars and call in advance or you could be in the last row with the Kleenex boxes and rolls of toilet paper. This system is equal to governments surge charge strategy. It should be first come first served.
The trip is a normal three hour and thirty minute, but just like Bill's top speed this pilot manages to cut off fifteen minutes of air time, as we land in a tiny Peninsula of Varadero, some one hour and fourty five minutes from Habana, Cuba - the city of revolution. As the plane taxi's towards our first taste of Cuban air, our watch tells us that it's 12.00 Midnight, and sixty four degrees, with clear skies and many stars leading us to a typical Caribbean Airport.
The big difference of course is the country, which won two major wars, the first with the Spaniards, and the second and most popular for us, defeating the Americans back in the late sixties. So its only right to say that we are intimidated, by this little country of ten million inhabitants, located on the Caribbean Sea, close to the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.
Karen and I are holding hands as we touch Cuban soil for the first time.
We head towards the main building, wondering about customs? And how they will react? What type of questions will they ask? Will we be detained? Will they confiscate our jewelry? will we be searched for secret American espionage papers? Your head just wonders.
We choose a line, and wait our turn. Unlike most custom's system, only one person walks up to the window of proof, so I suggest Karen go first, just in case she cracks a joke, and I must call Chretien, to release the blond crazy kid from Canada. No problem, as a matter of fact we are complemented when a custom officers puts two fingers to his lips and sends me a kiss, that my ring is very nice! There are over four hundred Canadians in line and this officer is in love with my ring. I wished the Custom official would get higher chairs to sit on, because when I approach the window, the security man's face was level with my navel. That's scary when you think we should be at eye level. The only conclusion I came to, was that they were x-raying our pockets for secret weapons.
We got our first taste of the Cuban tropics, slow, and slower. Now we have entered the concourse, and heading towards the baggage conveyors. It's a stop and go type with a warning signal that tells you, it's starting up again. No luggage, we are now in the slower stage, because I don't see one piece of our luggage, and the signal is driving me nuts. Karen is sitting on a steel bench, after all, we have been standing up now for the last twenty-five minutes, and by the looks of things, it just might be another twenty-five, and we want to get to our bus, and to the hotel, which they tells us is fourty minutes away.
From Karen's vantage point she spots our luggage, and from what she tells me, runs towards the conveyor belt, smacks into a man from Teteagauche, New Brunswick, he flies onto the conveyor belt, yelling, what did I do, nothing sir, I just want our two pieces of luggage. Thank God he say's, I thought I was being frisked. Now we must find the signature agent who will direct us to the bus, but before I could ask, Karen are you ok? A bellboy jumps our bags. Bus # 649, we are informed, cost, well he tells me, two American dollars, senor. We are now sitting in our bus wishing to leave, but there are two ladies holding up everything because they are smoking! As they finally enter the bus doors, they are escorted to a cheer of Boo's, and rightly so. It's now one thirty PM, Montreal time but Cuban time is 2.30PM, and we never could figure out the hour difference? Was it daylight saving or is there an hour difference always? This whole day began at 7.30AM Dorval time.
To conclude, after four stops at different hotels along the strip of Varadero, we reach Sol Club Las Sirenas, a four star ALL-Inclusive. Our home for the next seven days. We are well received at the reception desk, and given a room at the end of the complex. Within minutes, a telephone call is placed to the front desk requesting a change of room. To our surprise, the next morning, we are informed that we are now proud parents of a third floor unit over looking the center court, pool, and the Caribbean Ocean, what a sight, what a beautiful room. Sol Melia all-Inclusive resort features beautiful architecture with a touch of European flair.
SUNDAY, March26, 2000 orientation day, we awoke late 9.15AM, shower, dress, and headed towards breakfast, a huge dining room, with a capacity for at least four hundred guest, but since it's now only minutes from ten, we have one half hour to get our breakfast which is lean of food by this time, but enough to get us going. After breakfast, a bellboy helps us transfer our luggage to 3292 from 1001. We unpack, and look over the complex from our balcony, what a sight for sore eyes. Our game plan is to walk the complex, and find out all about our next six days at this beautiful hotel.
First down to the pool, which we used only once, but on a few occasion sat around this "S" shape design enjoying a café au-lait. Located just off the snack bar, which supplied us with drinks all day, and if you wanted steak, pork chops, sausages and fries that's the spot. The pool-bar enabled guest to float onto a seat, and order a wide variety or tropical drinks while dangling your feet in the water. The clubhouse directed traffic, towels, reserving of water vehicles, dining room reservation to the Italian restaurant, or Chinese. You could also play Ping Pong, and Billiards, which we did on a few occasions while waiting for the entertainment to start. They had a giant Chess Board set up above the main pool with pieces weighing at least three pounds. As we walked towards the beach, we ran into another bar, where you could pick up juices of your choices, beer of course, and tropical drinks.
THE BEACH, what a beautiful playground, vast, white sand, beach chairs of your choice, with blue and white beach towels, a $ 15.00 deposit was required.
Palm tree Hut's all along our complex, but we knew that these would be at a premium. Then trick is to wake up early, run down to the beach place your towels on your chair, then back up breakfast, and return to the beach for a most rewarding stay. For the men who read this story, puppies were all around you. Europeans of course led the way with exposures of every size.
THE WATER, AAAHHH,,,The Water
what we consider the absolute best part of Cuba. A gentle slope leads you into the most clear blue and turquoise salt water this author has yet experienced. The beach stretches as far a you can see; in fact there are 20 kl of uninterrupted golden sandy beach. The ocean floor is a myriad of sapphire blues and emerald greens which cushions your tootsies as far out as you walk without drowning.
Once you're literally in over your head you start to see schools of yellow, white and black tropical fish dancing above the newer coral formations, which make up the first reef.
Both Karen and I can confirm that the Beach and Water, is the most rewarding attraction at this complex, and by Far outweighs all other features offered to us during seven days. We played, we walked, we waded, we swam, we floated, we rode on and in the Caribbean warm waters and when we needed a break, we sat under our hut ravishing the sights. We devoted most of our day to the beach area, only to surface for lunch, and dinner.
We also found out that the beach was listed as the ten cleanest beaches in the world, and we totally agree. In order to maintain our active pace we decided we needed a siesta daily, and managed at least one hour per day, to give our body a rest from the sun.
Our room was another plus, it was clean, large with a beautiful spacious bathroom and so was the whole complex, maintenance people believe in cleanliness, tiles are kept spotless right up to our room. Walkways to the pool, beach, restaurants, and garden walkways are well groomed with royal palms, bushes, not to mention little pools and water systems spitting water towards the skies.
This would be our second reason for choosing this complex.
Nightlife would be our third choice, and we used our imagination to plan a good dinner, by reserving for example dining at the Italian Restaurant, a full service restaurant, and it was good. But unfortunately the seating capacity was limited, which we found to be a negative point!
Nightly entertainment took place each night at 9.45PM with a warm up show on most nights. We attended every night, prior to having a café au-lait near the pool. The shows were lively affairs, great music and tremendous dancing with theme nights. On our first night Karen wins a watch, by knowing the music to Cat's. She was one happy vacationer.
Our fourth choice is the food, breakfast, lunch with one exception, and dinners were at the Buffet Restaurant located in the main complex. We had a variety of choices, but meat dishes were mostly disappointing. Chicken and pasta good, salads good, cold cuts great, surprisingly, fruit was limited, breads without a doubt excellent, pastry and ice cream number one. As for wine, beer, and water it depended on who was working your area, we had some great service, and we had poor service. Waiters who enjoyed clearing dishes ruined our evenings, but the two-way waiters who looked after us were fantastic, our wine glass was always full, so was our water glasses. It's important to drink liquids when we consume so much sun during a full day in Cuba.
We are not being negative here, because Cuba has so much to offer.
Front Desk people were excellent, Maid service "Four Star", maintenance people great, and we can say that the only bartenders who were consistent was the Snack Bar group.
My theory about Cubans work habit is a simple one - A waiter, cook, gardener, security all share in each others tips. So in actual fact they get a salary, and all tips are suppose to go into one pot, and shared at the end of the day, I presume? Therefore, if I give Ada our chambermaid, or Nelson our tour guide a tip, they must share with all the staff. So why, bust their butts.
American dollars is a commodity in Cuba, because the Cuban peso will buy products in a Cuban store, and these stores don't have all the quality products or enough inventory, but on the other hand if you have American Dollars, you can shop in what they consider an American grocery store, and get what you want.
Monday March 27, 2000, Tan day, and reservation day for tours to Havana "Habana", a trip to Varadero only minutes away by taxi, another trip to Plaza Americas, an expensive shopping mall and party night Thursday at the Habana Café located only a walk from our complex. Our signature agent, a likeable lady informed us on all aspects of our holidays.
Tuesday March 28, 2000 we visited VARADERO, located 3 km. From our hotel, we had a choice of how to get there, local bus $ 1.00 each, Taxi approximately
$ 5.00 or our choice horse and buggy at a cost of $ 10.00 for some fun. He let us off at the flea market at 46th. Street. The flea market was just starting their day, but choices were limited to artisan's products. Most artisans spoke two and three languages, fluently. We bought a leather belt, felt good. Walk the streets of Varadero. We then took a taxi which looked like a half Orange, cute, slow and very touristy. We rolled down the main street towards Parque Josome, a beautiful park, we imagined the creators vision towards quality presentation was the way future playgrounds should be built like, entre fee is $ 1.00 per person, two beers $ 3.00 with great service, we sat on a park bench sat along the water, and walked the park, and even danced to the sounds of Latin America.
OLD CARS, without a bit of rust. 1940,1950, and 1960's Chevrolet's, and Oldsmobile's. The most popular car appears to be the LADA from Russia. Very few new cars.
We took the bus back to our hotel, $ 1.00 and quick. We spent the afternoon drinking beer at the beach, we decided to try kayaking , bad timing, because the oars were out of sink, and we hit each other. and had a few problems then we switched to the paddleboat, which we enjoyed, but most of the fun was in the water riding the waves as they tossed us about towards the shore. Then it was siesta time before our big evening at the Italian Restaurant.
Minestrone soup, brochetta, great homemade lasagna, mouth watering.
Karen had the tough Veal, and Jock had the pork with red peppers, cream caramel for KC while Jock had the Profiteroles and café au-lait to complete our evening. We sat at the edge of the restaurant overlooking the water, and something so delightful happened while looking out from the restaurant, we saw Baby Karen, a blond little girl of about 3 years old, picking up stones from the garden, and then throwing the same into the water. Baby Karen was in a world of her own, Sweedish/Norweigian possibly. Her parent both tall, sat only a few table down from us enjoying the evening as their little girl ran towards the stage area, and then looked back, next thing she is in the snack bar lost of course, but, wait here she comes again, checked her parents, and again ran away tiptoeing and bouncing towards the stage, just a bit further, and again she would always make the wrong turn, and end up at the snack bar, only to find her way towards the restaurant once again to check out her parents. It was such a joy; we wondered what type of parents they were. To conclude our evening, we sat next to the pool, and waited for the theme of Disney to start the show.
Afterwards, we sauntered towards the Lobby Bar for a nightcap, and then dreamville. We were one tired couple. Tomorrow Habana, Cuba.
Wednesday, March 29th, 2000 wake-up call for 7.00AM, rush down to breakfast, and a waiting air-conditioned first class bus. We left the hotel at 8.05 AM.
Our guide for the day was Nelson, a confident young man, well-educated Cuban, who spoke good English, and although he was not an Historian, he managed to inform us about both wars, the education, and health system of Cuba.
He informed us that education is free including your books, with University graduates such as a Doctor having to spend two years in a designated area such as the mountains or other remote area before he could go on his own. They also have trade schools. Nelson graduated in the tourism industry, which is booming. In fact it is CUBA # 1 industry. Health system is the envy of the Caribbean's, totally free they only pay for prescriptions. We saw their modern hospital, and they are extremely proud of the service they offer to the Cuban population.
Cuban's own their own home; they are given the home by the state and they pay a monthly rent, so they really own it, and can't sell the home.
We saw a complex which was built in the 1970's so that all Cubans could have a home. The housing complex reminded you a bit of the rag trade type building. Very poor people, but they appear to be content. On every rooftop water tanks, supply complex with hot water.
It's downhill from here folks most buildings are dilapidated; many homes are shacks, many with bars on the windows. All the buildings need paint. When we arrived in Havana, we were shocked at the city, the only decent buildings are the ones built by the Americans, even then they are run down.
Nelson pointed out what they call the "Camel Bus"; it's a truck cab pulling a long boxcar, with the middle lower than the first and last car. People are crammed in like cattle, cost for the ride is $ 0.20 cents, and you can see major line-ups for this method of transportation. Boy are we lucky people. Regular buses are dirty, full capacity and fumes are in excess. We visited a cemetery. Nelson pointed three tombs out to us, a monster of a statue depicted 9 firemen who lost their life in a major fire. The pictures of each man is etched into the stone. The next belongs to the first women to get a divorce in Habana. Her last husband wanted her to have the biggest tomb, but they would not allow it, so they planted two Royal Palms, which is Cuban's national three. These then grew to reach the same height as the largest tomb. The last involved a women who died during child birth along with her baby. As is the custom, she was buried with her baby at her feet, but when they retrieved the bones after three years, they found the baby bones in the women's arms, this women is considered a saint, and to this day, people visit her grave sight and pray for miracles, and when they happen people return to place gifts on her stone. When we visited, people were surrounding and placing gifts on her tomb. A chilling reminder that faith can create miracles.
CUBA is a counter culture and we received mixed messages like;
We were informed that we should make sure that we get our entire luggage right away or else there is a good chance we will not see it later.This creates a bad image. In Habana, we bought some ice creams, and never got change.
Its not an image, it's a fact! Two things happen when you don't have the exact change - Airport Tax is $ 20.00 per person, if we give a $ 50.00 bill, forget about the $ 10.00 Change and if you don't have $ 20.00, you are not leaving CUBA.
Beggars, kids roaming the street, so poor they have only pants on.
One incident I can recall, Karen and I are sitting enjoying an ice cream on a ledge only seconds from our bus. I notice a little boy, possibly 12 years old, he has an alley, and a sharp piece of wood. He approached us and begins to jab the sharp object into the dirt, then he starts kicking the dirt, and glances our way. Another boy of equal age joins the boy, and they are now closer, about four feet away, when another boy of at least 16 years of age joins the group, and he also takes this sharp object, and jabs away at the earth. At this point I get up from my curb seat, just next to a school, and face the boys while I gesture to Karen, that we better leave. What was happening, is that these boys were up to no good, they used this sharp object to intimidate you, and then we would be approached or jumped, in any case, they were just poor kids trying to find money to survive?
This my dear friend, is something they need to address as soon as possible. Although this sort of behaviour did not happen in Varadero, I must say that the city of Habana is infested with such poverty and the Cuban Government should be ashamed. Black market is rampant by the looks of it, and the people who approach us are not young. Even while playing in the Ocean, several men would swim up to us, and say do you want to buy CUBAN cigars? .
Nelson gave us a test; he asked us on the Air Conditioned Bus what are the three main industries in Cuba. Of course, from all parts of the bus came shouts of Tobacco, Sugar Cane, Rum, these answers were right, but in different order.
Nelson suggested that the real answer is Women, drinking, and Dancing.
In fact Tourism, Tobacco, and Sugarcane are one,two and three.
A note about 6-year old Elian Gonzales, like the Missing Children Network do in Canada, his picture his posted throughout Cuba even on billboards. Based on what I saw in Habana, this young boy belongs in the United States with his aunts and uncles. The fact his Mom wanted out, is the deciding factor. I would have to assume, that the father would not be far behind if everything would have gone as planned. Mom's know best!
Hipocrasy, my dear friends is the name of the game, Cuban's say we don't accept American Express card, but please bring your American dollars. Al Gore who is running for President, says, he feels that Elian should remain in Florida, talk about bullshit, here is a man seeking the number one office in the USA, and he uses Elian as a method of getting the Cuban-American vote. Hipocrasy on both sides.
Cuba is a country in progress, needs a complete renovation and paint job.
Thursday March 30th, 2000 is Party night at the Habana Café located next door to our hotel. Visitors who traveled with Air Transat & Signature tours received an invitation. We enter the Café, and were presented with a rum punch, a powerful little drink, while music blared away making your feet move, and body sway to the latin music. The mood was happy, people jockeying for seats and tables. We found a table in front of a 1960 Chevrolet, and every now and then the horn would go off and the lights would flask, knocking us off our chair. It was a fun night with gifts to be won, along with dancing, and drinking. During this evening an American couple ask if they could join our table, we were flabbergasted that they were Americans considering the conflict of not only the War, but what about this young boy, Elian, who the Cubans want back in the worse way. The Americans said, they got in through Vancouver with a Visa only. They were let in after an hour of interrogation.
We also met a couple from Nova Scotia, Tom and Judy, and although we had lunch with them, Karen was turned off by Tom's attitude.
Visited Plaza Americas on this day. We were told that this was the most expensive shopping Plaza in Varadero, but in our opinion, not so. Prices in Cuba were decent, no matter what place we were in. Unfortunately many stores were missing inventory/stock.
Friday March 31st. 2000 - Some experiences, snake in Ocean without a head! Just floating along. We thought a vulture must have picked the snake from the woods, and lost it in flight. Huge waves today, and when this happens, we can jump a wave, and get a ride to shore.
The Banana boat - What an exciting, and fun thing to do, and only $ 5.00.
The boat picked us up at our beach and with a life jacket strapped on, we climbed aboard for our ride. We realized this would be a rough ride when he asked us for our hats, and glasses. Already the waves were powerful. The motorboat with a long line towing the Banana tube of yellow, with a blue round panels all along the tube, gave us a place for our feet and balance. He picked up another passenger, before heading off towards the middle of the Ocean passing other boats, hobby crafts. Then the real thing, waves were now reaching heights of three to four feet, and sure enough he made us flip over when he hit a wave on the curve. The first girl flew off sideways, Karen was next, and for some reason I flew backwards into the Ocean, and swallowed some salt water.
We tried to right the Banana Boat, and in order to get on, passengers must be equal on each side. I thought Karen was holding on, since I was on the opposite side, but nobody was, and I tipped the boat, landing it on my head and swallowing more water, Karen was looking for me, she thought I was drowning I guess. Finally, after a lot of struggling we get back on with one of the guy's from the boat joining us as a life guard, but in realty was more interested in the first girl. But still something is not quite right Jacques and Karen are facing the back of the Banana boat and the other two facing front. After some side splitting laughter we got it right and took off again. We also learned the art of counterbalancing in order to stay upright. Tremendous fun, and a great story to tell.
This would turn out to be our best beach day.
Tex-Mix is tonights entertainment. - Tall gay guy's in tight pants with spurs doing the Mambo? Very original.
Saturday April 1st, 2000 plans were to take the paddleboat out to the first reef, and feed the fish with dough balls. Beautiful Yellow, white and black fish. We were not the only people doing so, another couple joined us, as well as some snorklers and we played with the fish. We returned to the beach Beach day once again, and with a Siesta behind us, we did some shopping.
Lunches, and dinners were being stretched out now, knowing that our vacation is just about complete.
Our flight was at 2.45AM, and check out time is 12.00 Noon. For $ 30.00 they extended time to 6.30PM, which was great. That meant more time at the beach, access top more food and entertainment, another Siesta before our flight
We saw baby Karen for the last time, she was on stage prior to the show, dancing to great Latin music, and she was having a ball. Cute with pigtails, and dress smiling, and wondering about the lights shinning down on her. What a great memory.
The show "Latin Mix" finished at 10.45 PM, we hustled for our luggage, changed into our Canadians clothes, and headed towards the bus with a departure time from the hotel set at 11.20PM. We picked up more passengers from five others hotels along the way to the Airport. Leaving Cuba was more efficient than arriving. Our plane was due to leave at 2.45AM, so we knew that a wait was in order, then we are informed that there is a delay, its now 3.35AM, what bad news for two tired people. Karen is now sleeping with her head on my legs, when I hear that passengers for flight TS 709, should go the gate # 2 for departure, what a pleasant surprise were back on schedule.
Another giant L-1011
Well folks, here are some CUBAN facts; bordering on the tropic of Cancer, CUBA has a typically tropical climate. Blessed with beautiful sunny days plus gentle sea breezes and tradewinds to cool the air. CUBA offers little difference between summer and winter weather. It's the largest Island in the Caribbean.
ETHNIC BACKGROUND - Most Cubans are a mixed race;
CRIOLLOS, over 60% are from European descent.
MULATOS, 22% are a fusion of European & African descent.
MORENO, 13% are of pure African descent, and finally
A small % of Spanish and Chinese.
In conclusion, considering all aspects we highly recommend CUBA. Choose your package carefully, and as we did then enjoy the priceless beaches along the Peninsula of Varadero.