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Holidays: Cigars & cocktails on Fidel's fun island.

Byline: By MIKE SMALL

THEREOS a downside to paradise in summertime I you can get seriously damp...and worse.

Though the Caribbean has long been a dream destination for Brits, the very time we want to grab a fortnight in the sun is when the region receives a kicking from the elements.

So with the palm-fringed beaches, clear blue seas and exotic cocktails come tropical storms and, er, the occasional hurricane.

Take Cuba. Their rainy season is May to October. So although itOs wonderfully warm (average temperatures 27-C in July and August) itOs also, well, rainy. We went in June and the downpours were impressive, even for two from west of OffaOs Dyke who have some experience of precipitation.

Fortunately, the storms are short-lived: They hit, you get drenched, they move on, you resume getting sunburned.

And when those clouds lift, you can appreciate why more and more Brits opt for CastroOs Cuba every year.

In 1997, fewer than 46,000 of us travelled to the socialist republic that lies less than 100 miles from Florida. Last year more than 160,000 British tourists made the trip.

And itOs Varadero that the majority aim for. ItOs the best-known, and certainly the biggest resort on the island I a 16-mile long, mile-wide strip of land that juts out into the Atlantic and provides some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. ItOs the most commercialised part of the island, but with fewer than two dozen low-rise hotels and no more than a hundred bars and clubs, itOs still a world away from SpainOs Costas.

In the 19th Century, well-to-do Habaneros would take the steam ship to Varadero for their holiday, but it wasnOt until the 1920s and 30s that tourism really took off here.

Bored of Miami and gagging for a drink during Prohibition, the rich, famous and dodgy saw Cuba as a boozy playground.

In 1930 chemicals millionaire Irenee Dupont built a $1.3m (pounds 750,000), four-storey mansion he named, with typical American humility, Xanadu after the exotic palace built by Kublas Khan.

Stand-up guys like Al Capone followed. His villa, on Calle (Street) One, is today a restaurant, La Casa de Al, where paella is the speciality.

Xanadu is now a hotel with golf club I a par-72, 18-hole course right beside the ocean. A photo of Che Guevara and Castro playing a round hangs in the clubhouse.

The hotel also boasts the snootiest receptionist in the Greater and Lesser Antilles. When we enquired whether we could look round, she reacted as if IOd asked to inspect her underwear cupboard. She eventually relented and we savoured a cocktail or two in the Attic Bar, which has spectacular views of the area. (A double room costs approx pounds 120 and includes breakfast and green fee Ixemail varaderogolfclub@enet.cu)

We stayed at the Barcelo Sol Y Mar, typical of the all-inclusive, five- star hotels strung out along the Varadero peninsula. Set in lush, beautifully- manicured grounds, itOs got everything you need for a relaxing break. The beach is a two-minute walk away while in the grounds are two pools, four a la carte restaurants, numerous bars plus a gym, tennis court, cycles and beauty/massage parlours. In short, everything ....apart from air conditioning in three of the restaurants. There were times when we were warmer than the food.

Luxurious as they are, though, itOs worth leaving the all-inclusives occasionally to see the real Cuba. A 10-minute stroll from the hotels takes you into the town of Varadero. On Calle 1 you can admire the 50s Chevvys and Plymouths, listen to the music in the numerous bars and chat with locals.

Despite our closeness to Uncle Sam, Cubans genuinely seem to like Brits. Barman Eddie told us the British were always ready to sit down with a beer and have a natter I unlike the Spanish, French and Germans Owho have their noses in the airO.

I had first-hand experience of their friendliness when I was out jogging one morning. The previous evening IOd been attacked by mosquitoes and I looked like SuperTedOs mate Mr Spotty. Cue sympathetic looks and much shaking of heads from locals. Then a gardener appeared with a machete...and cut several leaves off an aloe vera plant, motioning for me to put it on the volcano-like bites. Apart from making the spots go green it didnOt seem to do much good, although the gesture was appreciated.

When you tire of the pool or beach, check out the nearby Parque Jonsone, a landscaped park where you can escape the heat. Wander across to the craft market on Calle 44 for souvenirs or get some culture at the municipal museum just up the road.

Where Varadero really scores over other popular Cuban resorts, such as Guadalavaca 300 miles to the south-east, is its proximity to Havana. YouOre just a pounds 6, two-hour bus ride from one of the worldOs most vibrant, fascinating cities. (Air-conditioned Viazul coaches leave Varadero for Havana from 36 Street and Motorway at 8am, 11.40am and 4pm. They return at 8am, noon and 6pm.)

Ideally, you need at least two or three nights to savour it but if, like us, you have just a night to spare, thereOs only one place to stay: The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, perched in a rocky outcrop overlooking the Malecon, where locals promenade and youngsters dive into the sea.

In a society where both labourers and doctors stand at the side of the road hitching a lift (because few can afford cars, and public transport struggles to cope with demand), some hotels are more equal than others, and the Nacional is one. Built in 1930, it now even has its own museum, where a giant mural celebrates some of the legends whoOve stayed there: Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and, er, the Stereophonics. It also has a subterranean smoking room where Churchill chomped on some fine Havanas. Even if you donOt stay there, itOs worth a visit. A mojito cocktail (light rum, mint and soda water) on the terrace bar is worth every penny of the pounds 3. (Double room with breakfast costs pounds 150 I email reserva@ hotelnacionaldecuba.com)

So if you have just 24 hours in Havana, hereOs what you MUST see and do:

WALK along the Malecon and admire the majestic 16th and 17th Century Spanish colonial buildings.

VISIT a cigar factory and discover the origin of the term sweat shop. The Partagas factory (entry pounds 6 for 30-min tour) has been churning out cigars since the 1840s and the building hasnOt changed much since then. Workers sit in rows with only a few fans to keep them from spontaneously combusting.

SIP a cocktail at one of the bars of Old Havana. Go to HemingwayOs old haunts (El Floridita for a daiquiri and La Bodeguita del Medio for a pricey mojito) but for atmosphere, head for Bar Monserrate just off Parque Central I live music and beers from pounds 1.50.

ThereOs also a startling illustration of how chronically short of lifeOs basics Cuba is: An old lady is employed to follow you to the loo where she hands over three sheets from presumably the barOs only roll.

At least the paperOs soft.

WHATOS THE DEAL?

DIRECT Holidays offer 14 nights all-inclusive at the five-star Hotel Barcelo Sol Y Mar in Varadero, starting at pounds 869pp in late November/early December. Price includes flights from Gatwick or Manchester I 0870 191 9065 or go to www.direct holidays.co.uk

CUBA ESSENTIAL INFO

MONEY: Up until last October, tourists used US dollars for almost every transaction. Fidel became fed up with that and now you have to use the Convertible Peso (CUC) which is worth just over $1 (approx 62p). Change your sterling or euros at the airport or your hotel for CUC at or near established exchange rates. When leaving, youOll be able to convert them back but remember, there are always fees when exchanging currency. When you get to the airport thereOs a $25 tax to pay. You can use credit cards as long as itOs not American Express.

TIPPING: Thanks to the US governmentOs trade embargo, CubaOs economy is forever on the brink of ruin. The vast majority of Cubans are desperately poor, although the state provides a reasonable health service and good education. Tourism keeps the country going and in a society where the average wage is about pounds 10 a month, a 1 peso tip (about 60p) goes a long way. Everyday items, such as pens, pencils, soap, deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste, are like gold dust to most Cubans. Leaving behind what you donOt need or handing them over to those you befriend makes their lives a little more bearable.

CAPTION(S):

Varadero Beach.. Cuba has some of the best sands in the Caribbean; Try a refreshing mojito cocktail; Stay at HavanaOs Hotel Nacional; Sip a cocktail in a buzzing bar; Admire the classic American cars
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 31, 2005
Words:1504
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