Havana Carnival in Cuba! Why Choose between Sand and City? PAUL GOGARTY Found Both in the Caribbean's Biggest (and Brashest) Island

Daily Mail (London), January 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Havana Carnival in Cuba! Why Choose between Sand and City? PAUL GOGARTY Found Both in the Caribbean's Biggest (and Brashest) Island


Byline: PAUL GOGARTY

THE Caribbean must surely be the first family choice when seeking an injection of winter sun. But let's face reality - many of her islands have little more to offer than dreamy beaches.

It would not be an overstatement to say that Cuba - which is about the size of Britain and is the largest of the Caribbean islands - shatters the mould.

To only book a beach holiday would be like getting a table at Gordon Ramsay's and only nibbling at a bread roll.

Naturally, the Cuban beaches are fabulous; and when I took my own family there just before Christmas, we started off by the sea, replacing our British winter pallor with some winter colour.

But the beauty of the place is to know that after a few days lolling about, the crumbling splendour of Cuba's first and second cities, Havana and Santiago, are waiting- It was with this knowledge that we ensconced ourselves at a bar overlooking a blaze of white sand and gently breaking waves, our family of four sitting with cold beers in hand (well, the 'kids' are now 16 and 18) with nine days of rest and recreation ahead of us.

We found the Paradisus Rio de Oro in Guardalavaca to be the best all-inclusive we've stayed at in the Caribbean. The five-star resort sits in a lush landscape of palms, mango trees and hibiscus.

The Paradisus is not only the first resort I've stayed at where two cocktails had me wobbling over the pool table (all-inclusives usually pour spirits in Scrooge-like measures), but it also has a charming staff - a shock to old Caribbean hands used to surly service for their slice of winter sun.

The only other time I visited Cuba was a decade earlier when presenting a travel show for BBC 1's Holiday programme. At the time, the hotel food was grim. Thankfully, culinary standards have improved and the Paradisus is leading the way with eight restaurants.

In the daytime, we found a similar smorgasbord of options, from the pristine beach and its Hobie Cats (catamarans) and canoes, to free yoga, aerobics, tennis, horseriding and snorkelling.

The first of our two trips offsite took us to a small beach on the banks of a densely-forested estuary. Out in front was the vast playpen containing the dolphins that had brought us here.

Having donned lifejackets and had our briefing, we were soon in the water playing synchronised clapping, body rolling and petting with Torpedo and Alphonso. The highlight was when the dolphins propelled me across the surface of the water, lifting me vertically to appear like a human motorboat.

Our second excursion was a speedboat trip in flotilla crashing through waves breaking at another river mouth, and then snaking through mangrove. When the river became a stream, we moored up near a farm where we learned about the rigours of agriculture.

Apart from the two sorties off site, we were happy at our resort - because we knew what was yet to come.

Havana is the world capital of music, where the buildings may be dilapidated, but the people are intent on partying hard at their wake. The 40-year U.S.

embargo may mean Cuba is the only Caribbean destination where tourists have to forego a Coca-Cola and McDonald's diet, but in exchange they're granted an entree to one of the most vibrant cultures on earth - home to the mojito (a mint and rum cocktail), cigars, salsa, Fidel's revolution, and the resting homes of Fifties' Cadillacs and wandering bands.

In Havana, a bar may only have room for 12 clients but they'll always squeeze in a band. For two days, our family tasted the Buena Vista lifestyle crammed into bars such as the legendary Bodeguita del Medio, (Ernest Hemingway's old haunt) or stretching out in cane chairs on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional. …

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