Secrets from my Suitcase: Cuba: Travel Beyond Varadero

– by Suzanne Morphet –

He shoots, he scores! NHL Alumni – two, Cuba Cruise Crew – one.

You don’t expect to watch former hockey pros like Bernie Nicholls wielding a stick on the deck of your cruise ship, but Cuba Cruise isn’t like any other cruise line I know. It combines the best of Cuba with some of the comforts of home in one memorable week.

Canada has long enjoyed a special friendship with this island nation. Just look who President Obama asked for help to jumpstart a new relationship with its long-time foe. So it makes sense that a Canadian company has figured out how to take visitors beyond the beaches of Varadero.

From the political capital of Havana on the island’s northwest, to the rum-soaked revolutionary capital of Santiago de Cuba in the southeast, we’ll circumnavigate the island, stopping at UNESCO World Heritage sites, national parks and six ports along the way. And instead of spending just a few hours ashore, like many cruise itineraries, we’ll spend entire days, giving us plenty of time to get lost – in a good way – on our own or to join one of the array of interesting excursions on offer.

Soon after flying into Havana, I find myself sitting in the front seat of a bright pink 1953 Ford Victory, rooftop down, sea breeze blowing through my hair as we drive along the waterfront, past Revolution Square and into the city’s historic old quarter.

The man in the driver’s seat has a beautiful smile. Thirty-year old Sergio Nieto tells me that he and two friends paid about $25,000 for the classic car, an impossible sum for Cubans, who earn about $46/month on average. “I have family outside,” he explains, adding that his parents moved to Spain in the 1980s after the Soviet Union collapsed and life in Cuba became very hard.

The Ford’s original engine was swapped for a diesel one long ago, and the exterior has been painted numerous times, but the pink interior is still the original, right down to the door handle that threatens to come off in my hand.

We leave the cars to stroll through the narrow streets of Old Havana, stopping at Ambos Mundos, where Hemmingway lived in the 1930s, and at Condé Villanueva, another historic hotel, this one known for its smoking lounge and cigar shop. That evening, a dozen of us put on our dancing shoes and head to a local nightclub for a tribute to the Buena Vista Social Club and the sounds of Cuban son.

If you think Havana is in a time warp, the countryside of Holguin province in eastern Cuba is something else again. On our way to Fidel Castro’s birthplace we pass pairs of white oxen plowing fields, horses pulling buggies filled with people or piled high with sugarcane, men in cowboy hats confidently riding their steeds. But when I see a man walking a pig along the roadside I’m flummoxed. “It’s the cheapest way to feed a pig,” explains our guide. “He eats the grass and sweet potatoes.”

Back onboard I feel slightly guilty going for dinner at the Alberta Steak House, but would it be better not to see the real Cuba? No, because travel should challenge and change us for the better. So tip generously and go.

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