CARIBBEAN holidays conjure up visions of beaches, bananas, sunshine and calypsos; but the true essence, not to mention spirit, of its disparate destinations reveals itself at cocktail hour: every island will have its own version of a rum punch, for instance, many with their own distinctive ingredients.
But if you cannot make it to those islands-in-the-sun this year, pick up your atlas, put on your panama and console yourself with a cruise through happy hour (and history) at the local bar.
Start, so to speak, on the craggy south-east coast of Cuba, which conceals some fine sandy coves, among them the village of Daiquiri. An American mining engineer stationed here around the turn of the century mixed rum (three parts) with lime (one part) and a spoonful of sugar. Today, an awkwardly angular hotel has been plonked in the middle of the bay. The barman serves a mean daiquiri for a bargain dollars 2 ( pounds 1.40) - now, as then, the dollar rules in Cuba.
Just along the road from Daiquiri is the farmhouse where Fidel Castro's first, abortive attempt to defeat the dictator Batista was initiated. While living in the Cuban capital, Ernest Hemingway acquired the daiquiri habit. He drank his favourite cocktail at El Floridita - now an uncomfortably air- conditioned tourist haunt.
An American also invented the island's national drink, the Cuba Libre, to celebrate independence in 1898. The original ingredients were Bacardi rum and Coca-Cola. Under Castro's regime, however, the best you can hope for is Havana Club rum mixed with Tropicola - a sickly ersatz version of Coke.
The reason for the first change of brand was nationalisation of the rum industry, which persuaded the Bacardi family to move elsewhere; the second was the US trade embargo, which seeks to deprive Cuba of everything from Coca- Cola to medicine.
You can take a Cuba Libre on the 25th floor of the Habana Libre - until the revolution, the Havana Hilton - and take in the crumbling magnificence of the Cuban capital.
Move on to the Dutch enclave of Curacao, which gives its name to orange-based liqueurs displaying the more bilious extremes of the visual spectrum thanks to artificial colouring. The sensible tippler will instead follow the trade winds east along the Antilles to the Venezuelan holiday island of Margarita (and, likewise, the top shelf along to the tequila bottle). This is the cut-price Caribbean and a margarita (tequila, triple sec, lime, salt) costs only pounds 1.
Though it is not strictly the Caribbean any longer, since you have got as far as Venezuela, strike into the interior for the town of Ciudad Bolivar, formerly Angostura, where a dash of the famous bitters will add bite to whatever happens to be your poison.
If that sounds too much like hard work and you prefer the ambience suggested by the song 'Wasting away in Margaritaville', head for Key West, Florida. The southernmost point in the continental USA, this resort juts out like a cocktail umbrella into the Caribbean, full of wastrels neither shaken nor stirred.
From there it is not so far to Grand Bahama and then just an island hop or two down to Grand Caicos and Grand Turk. By which time you will surely have had enough sun, or be sufficiently sozzled, to entertain the idea of a trip to Grand Marnier. Bon voyage]
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