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.
One artifact of the past is worth a visit: Xanadu, the mansion built by the Du Pont family in the 1920s. Now a restaurant and bar called Las Américas, it reflects an utterly different conception of how to live on a beach: the walls are thick, the windows small, the decor heavy and ornate. It's hard to visualize the house's inhabitants in bathing suits. But the dining room is opulent and grand (though the food is undistinguished), and the wine cellar, original to the house, offers the island's best selections. The top-floor bar offers long views, tasty cocktails and a dance band. It's the closest you can get to the decadent luxury of the days prior to the revolution.
New hotels continue to be erected on Varadero. If the latest ventures prove successful, the island's services, activities and restaurants will surely progress as well. Whether they can justify their steadily increasing prices in the face of competition from the rest of the Caribbean remains to be seen. But whether economic indicators rise or fall, Varadero can always count on clear water, balmy breezes and the lazy caress of the tropical sun.
Thomas Matthews is a senior editor of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.
Outside of Cuba, telephone numbers need the 53-5 prefix.
Playa de las Américas
Carretera de las Morlas
Phone: 66 70 13
Fax: 66 70 12
Built in 1991, Meliá Varadero is the first five-star hotel on the resort island and certainly the best. With nearly 500 rooms, it was constructed to handle large groups, but it also caters to high-end independent travelers.
The rooms are clean, bright and comfortable, with tile floors, wicker furniture and contemporary marble bathrooms. All rooms have balconies; many have stunning ocean views. Swimming pools are set amid lush tropical plantings; the public beach is large and clean. Rates for double rooms run from $125 for a standard to $195 for a suite in the low season, rising to $155 and $225 in the high season. Groups can sometimes negotiate significant savings.
Meliá Las Américas
Playa de las Américas
Phone: 66 76 00
Fax: 66 76 25
Though built in 1994 as an upscale alternative to the Meliá Varadero, the Meliá Las Américas doesn't justify its higher prices.
Las Américas basically replicates the decor and services of Varadero. The rooms are slightly larger and most have balconies. One significant draw is the hotel's proximity to the island's only golf course, Xanadu (once part of the Du Pont property; greens fees are $45 for hotel guests, $60 for others). Four interlocking swimming pools are surrounded by plush landscaping. Las Américas also offers bungalows, detached structures that are closer to the beach; they are small, however, and the decor is uninspired. Room rates range from $120 to $175 for a standard double in the low season, rising to $290 and $320 in the high season, with the larger bungalows as much as $355.
Carretera Las Americas Km 3
Phone: 66 70 30
Fax: 66 70 05
This all-inclusive 270-room property, which opened in 1992, is part of the Super Club chain, which runs resorts in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. The base price includes room, food, beverages (including alcoholic drinks), sports equipment, activities and most other incidentals, excluding only Champagne, telephone charges, massages and laundry service.
The resort is modeled after a village, with low-rise buildings sheltered by palm trees. The suites are small and simple, and most are only steps from the beach. Meal options include a cozy Italian restaurant and a huge, hangar-like buffet. There's even a grill on the beach where hot dogs and hamburgers sizzle. Club Varadero doesn't offer the luxury or service of the Meliá hotels, but its food is no worse and it fits more snugly into the landscape. Rates range from $125 to $185 a person a day, depending on the season and the size of the suite.