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Hit the Beach

With its Glistening Sand and Luxury Hotels, Varadero Harks Back to Cuba's Glory Days
Thomas Matthews
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

Both as geographic fact and as cultural image, Cuba comes closest to the United States on the white sand beaches of Varadero.

The rapidly growing resort occupies a narrow island that juts into the Straits of Florida on Cuba's northern coast. On a map, the island, a sliver 12 miles long and less than a mile wide, looks like an arrow aimed almost directly at the U.S. mainland, and its northernmost tip represents the shortest distance between the two opposing points.

Crossing the bridge between mainland Cuba and Varadero, the socialist country seems even closer to the capitalist Caribbean. When it comes to material progress, the surrounding countryside is decrepit and drab, and the billboards exhort citizens to pursue socialism or death. But once over the short span that leads to Varadero, the scene changes to high-rise hotels, fast-food restaurnts and souvenir stands.

The scrubby island has long been a seaside playground. As early as the 1870s, families from the nearby city of Cárdenas built summer homes on Varadero. According to Christopher P. Baker in his useful Cuba Handbook, the town center that occupies the western end of the island, nearest the mainland, was laid out in 1883 and the first hotel opened in 1915. Varadero's development went upscale in the 1920s, when U.S. industrialist Irénée Du Pont bought most of the island's eastern end and built an estate he called Xanadu. His wealthy friends soon joined him, followed in the 1950s by American-built hotels.

Varadero became a Miami in miniature.

The Cuban revolution aimed to change all that, however. Fidel Castro turned the resort into a workers' retreat, with youth camps and modest family lodgings that even the poorest could enjoy. But Cuba's need for foreign currency--greatly sharpened by the economic crises triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union--and the global tourism industry's ravenous appetitefor new destinations combined to push Varadero back into familiar patterns. Fueled by joint investment operations with European and Latin American companies, the tourist industry has exploded on Varadero, which now contains 60 hotels and 15,000 rooms, with more on the way.

Today, the new world of Varadero begins at the police checkpoint on the bridge that separates the resort from the socialist homeland. Foreign tourists pay a $2 toll, workers with valid ID are waved through, hustlers and prostitutes are turned away.

The main road leads into the old town, which has a permanent population of about 17,000. This is the livelier and less expensive end of Varadero, with budget hotels, fast-food restaurants and markets that sell crafts and souvenirs. A few old wooden homes built in the Bahamian style, with wide porches and louvered windows, recall the island's heyday. The town's attractions include a new outpost of Havana's El Aljibe restaurant, famed for its roast chicken, and the Parque Josones, a park that offers landscaped grounds lush with rare plants and animal life.

Farther east, the town peters out and the ocean beaches widen into beautiful silver strands. Development changes to large, self-contained resort hotels, and prices rise sharply. Some are all-inclusive communities whose entry gates are manned by security guards. Once inside, there is little incentive to leave, as the fees cover all food, beverages and most activities during your stay. Other hotels are branches of world-wide luxury chains, such as Meliá and Gran Caribe.

The typical luxury hotel in eastern Varadero offers amenities similar to other Caribbean resorts. The rooms are air-conditioned and comfortably furnished in wicker and tile, with cable televisions and abundant hot water in marble bathrooms. Restaurants generally include poolside bars, casual cafés, a seafood grill and a formal dining room that serves international cuisine. Swimming choices include large, palm-shaded pools. Lessons and equipment for boating, snorkeling, diving and other sports are available. Gift shops offer the usual trinkets, but also fine jewelry and Cuban cigars. These resorts are comfortable places with friendly service and natural beauty.

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