Cuban deals: Book a package holiday to Castro's stronghold
After a lifetime of travelling independently, Lisa Francesca Nand booked a package holiday to Cuba. Oh, the guilt...
Saturday 06 October 2007
Along the Prado in Havana, and in every other community in Cuba, they are preparing for the annual celebration on 8 October. On Monday, schoolchildren will parade exuberantly through the streets carrying pictures of the world's most iconic revolutionary. They are commemorating the day that Che Guevara was unceremoniously executed in the Bolivian jungle, on October 9, 1967. For the past four decades Fidel Castro, who fought alongside the young Argentine to defeat the reviled Batista dictatorship, has carefully nurtured the legend of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Youngsters still solemnly vow to "die in a hail of bullets like Che" in defence of the revolution. Yet had Guevara been spared 40 years ago, he would probably have found the extreme inequalities in today's Cuba hard to stomach. I do.
Not that anyone should feel sorry for me: I am, as it happens, writing this on a moonlit terrace in Cuba, mojito in hand, waves lapping on the pristine white sand on the beach over yonder, with a waiter standing discreetly by to replenish the glass when need be. I'm in Varadero, at the all-inclusive luxury Sandals Hicacos resort, and it's the eve of the last day of my first-ever all-inclusive holiday.
So why the guilt? Firstly, after several years of being the intrepid independent traveller – staying in strange hostels in Hanoi, going off the tourist trail in Fiji, boutique hotels in Montevideo – and organising every little step of the way myself, I've broken my first rule of modern travel: thou shalt not go on a package tour unless you've got a damn good reason for it (valid ones being children who need occupying, no real desire for foreign food, a fondness for order, and so on). With no children but little time on my hands, I booked this holiday through a travel agent. There were no hours spent trawling guidebooks and the internet for a hidden gem, no calls were made to obscure hostels to be answered by crackles or incomprehensible language, no dodgy buses to arrange. Just one conversation and the handing over of a credit card and I was on my way to my first all-inclusive experience to Cuba – a nation where, from the locals' point of view, little is included.
Having dug myself into a hole by showing off about past holiday bargains and natty little finds, telling my more adventurous friends about my holiday plans felt more like a confession. Fortunately I planned my own redemption – going off-piste, as it were, on the second week. Nevertheless, I found myself defending my all-inclusive choice at every opportunity.
Surprisingly most people easily came round to my way of thinking; if we're honest, the type of holidays where you organise everything yourself are great but can involve a lot of hard work. And from start to finish it worked like a dream. The tour operator made a minor change to the booking, and by way of amends upgraded us to "concierge class": a better room, with someone on hand to organise every whim. The flight on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick to Havana was as it should be, I and my travel companion were picked up by a private car at the other end, whisked through the night to the resort, greeted with a fresh fruit juice and put onto a golf cart to whizz us through the pools and gardens until we were left in our beautifully furnished, large, balconied room.
At first it was a little difficult to relax. Having been used to seeking out the most atmospheric places to eat, planning how to get there, and setting a programme of cultural sites, we have been left with the tough daily decision of whether to go to the beach or the pool. The beach has won most days, and once I adjusted to doing, well, nothing, it really has been pure bliss.
I have never been to the Caribbean before and the azure sea and white sand are exactly as the clichés promise. Some guidebooks imply that Varadero is the Cuban equivalent of Blackpool (not that there's anything wrong with Blackpool). It isn't. The long, sandy peninsula is stunning. The hotels are sensitively built with large gardens and grounds, and the beaches are not at all crowded – though this could be because ordinary Cubans are not allowed near them. Which leads me on to that sense of guilt.
Food in Cuba is still rationed, or simply unavailable, and much of the best produce is exported – which leaves little for the locals. Casting an eye over the display at the resort restaurants you would have no idea of this. Table after table of salads, cheeses, lobster, whole legs of ham, piles of prawns, steak, pasta, freshly baked breads and mounds of desserts are spread out for us to indulge in.
Apart from the Cuban serving staff, who always bring over the third, fourth or sometimes fifth helping with a smile, there are no locals in sight. But the abundance of food makes me feel uncomfortable. And even less appetising are the many holidaymakers who seem to interpret the term "all-inclusive " as "eat and drink as much as you can stuff your face with before you fall over". People who are used to the concept have brought their own litre-sized drink coolers so they can cram more in without having to raise a weary hand to summon a waiter.
In the resort itself there is no sign of what some might call the "real Cuba". Of course all Cuba – from luxurious resort to shabby neighbourhood in Havana – is Cuba and therefore genuine. However there's very little that could identify the host culture. The staff are polite and efficient, though it is difficult to talk to them about anything that scratches the surface. The limited conversations I have had about politics or the future have been met with a whispered response and a furtive glance over the shoulder. I have gleaned that people are unaware of Castro's exact state of health. They love their country with a passion but many of them, given the chance, would leave. On a more practical level they are allowed to eat on site, but I have watched them having their bags searched when they leave.
Although anyone who deals with foreigners is still poorly paid (average monthly income on the island adds up to less than £10 a head) the hard-currency tips help make them more prosperous than the average Cuban. To encourage the tipping habit, chambermaids leave flowers, chocolates, handwritten notes and fresh towels moulded into the shape of swans on the bed at night. Walk through the resort's lush garden paths and a gardener is likely to pop out of the bushes with a flower "for the lady" or a freshly decapitated coconut complete with a straw to drink. It is all very creative, and we duly obliged with euros and Cuba's strange home-grown hard currency, the convertible peso. However this practice has encouraged a two-tier economy and a widening gap between those with access to hard currency and those stuck with moneda nacional, ordinary Cuban pesos.
Varadero, the island's biggest resort, is Cuba's hard-currency capital: outside the fence there is plenty to spend "funny money" on, notably on a sunset cocktail in the top floor bar of the art deco Hotel DuPont, well worth the visit. I am – as anyone I've felt the need to justify myself to will testify – off to Havana and on towards Trinidad tomorrow and will enter the "real Cuba". Strangely, despite the almost total isolation from the rest of the island, I feel more than prepared to leave this gilded cage, to see what remains of Che Guevara's revolutionary idealism.
Havana is served by Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) direct from Gatwick, and Cubana Airlines (01293 569677; www.cubana.cu), which flies from Gatwick via Holguin on the outbound leg, and flies back direct.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
Packages to Cuban resorts can be booked through companies such as The Holiday Place (0870 066 5217; www.theholidayplace.com), while bespoke trips can be organised with tour operators such as CTS Horizons (020-7836 4338; www.ctshorizons.com).
Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Matanzas Province, Cuba (020-7581 9895; www.sandalshicacos.com). Double rooms start at £345 per night, all inclusive.
Cuba tourism, 154 Shaftesbury Ave, London (020-7240 6655; www.cubatravel.cu).
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