Cigar Aficionado

Cuba's New Paradise

"You feel like a fish swimming in these waters," says Janet Morejon, one of the public relations managers of the newly opened Sol Club Cayo Largo, a 296-room deluxe hotel located on one of Cuba's most beautiful beaches.

The sea surrounding the key of Cayo Largo is as clear and clean as a mountain stream, with beautifully preserved coral reefs and rich ocean life. The beaches, bright and brilliant in the strong Cuban sun, seem as if they are whitewashed daily. Maybe it is the reflection from the shallow ocean waters, but there is a radiance here that one can only find on the best beaches in the Caribbean. Cuba has some of the grandest of them, and many are in Cayo Largo, an island about 115 miles southeast of Havana.

The creation of Sol Club Cayo Largo, a $25 million investment by the island's Gran Caribe Co. and under the management of the Spanish hotel group Sol Meliá, is seen by some as paving the way for Cuba's first upmarket beach resort. Until now, most visitors to Cuba looking for a beach holiday have traveled to Varadero, a city about 90 miles east of Havana with beautiful beaches but high-rise hotels that are reminiscent of a second-rate Cancún or third-rate Miami. It was once the beach area of choice for the elite of Havana before the revolution, but it is now a stopover for budget tourists looking for a cheap holiday to catch some sun.

"Varadero is dead now," says Cristina Hernandez, a Spaniard working with Sol Meliá as a customer relations manager for its Cayo Largo project. If reservations are any indication of the resort's success, then it's doing quite well. The hotel is already sold out for most of the year, and management is considering raising its prices. "Varadero used to have a lot going for it, but now it doesn't have much," Hernandez continues. "It's too much like many parts of Mexico. It doesn't seem like Cuba anymore."

Cayo Largo may not seem much like Cuba, either, if you are used to the hustle of Havana. There's no Spanish colonial architecture or masses of Cubans or 1950s DeSotos on the streets. It's just a handful of hotels, beaches, a harbor and a small town, as well as a large airstrip. It wasn't until the end of 1981 that anyone seriously attempted to build a hotel, but those that were built were third-class at best. At the moment, the island has about 1,000 rooms, but the Cuban government hopes to increase that number to 3,000 over the next 10 years. All of the new construction should be along the lines of the Sol Club Cayo Largo.

Despite the limited accomodations at present, the sheer beauty and tranquility of the island keep many people coming back. There's only two ways onto the island -- flights from Havana and abroad (Lauda Air, for example, flies a charter directly from Milan to Cayo Largo), or a five- to six-hour boat ride from Havana.

Cayo Largo's isolation is one reason why it stays so beautiful. The island boasts some of the best coral reefs in Cuba, making for superb scuba diving and snorkeling. Moreover, the estuaries and seabed offer some of the best fly-fishing for bonefish and permit in the Caribbean. It's no wonder that National Geographic has praised the island as having one of the best-preserved ocean floors in the Caribbean.

The facilities at Sol Club Cayo Largo are equally resplendent. The bungalows are built to extremely high international standards (not often seen in Cuba). They are decorated in tasteful pale colors with simple yet pretty furniture, and they offer all the amenities one could hope for, from satellite television and air-conditioning to minibars and hair dryers in every room. The resort's four restaurants offer simple cuisine, from grilled fish and meats to pizza, pasta, salads and fresh fruit. Drinks are available at a number of bars. Recreational offerings include a big swimming pool, tennis courts and plenty of windsurfing and other aquatic sports.

The hotel staff will be happy to organize a sportfishing boat for a day for about $260. You can take it fishing or simply visit the various isolated beaches and swim to your heart's content. A friend and I took the 36-foot Orion with Capt. Placido Roura Vidal to a number of gorgeous beaches and enjoyed a fabulous lunch of grilled lobsters and salad. We dived off the flybridge and swam to virgin beaches. It was bliss. "We have it all here," said Roura Vidal, as he skippered our boat through a small estuary to another pristine beach. "The natural beauty is fabulous here. All we need now is for Americans to come. If we had them, then we would really have it all."