Melia Varadero, Varadero, Cuba

Cuba's Varadero has always been known for its exquisite white, sandy beaches and clear, light blue sea, but the hotels available until recently had very little in common with the area's first-class coastline. Then came the Melia Varadero. Opened in December 1991, the 483-room Melia Varadero is the only five-star hotel on the thin, 35-kilometers-long peninsula which juts out into the Caribbean Sea. Cuba is no different than many other Caribbean Islands, and therefore, its rating system for hotels can be extremely suspect. But the Melia Varadero is a very good hotel, even by international standards.

The impressive white, star-shaped building with its seven wings sits on a small bluff overlooking the sea. Nearly every room has a balcony with a sea view. Inside, the public areas, such as the lounges, restaurants and bars, are immaculate. The large atrium with its fountain in the center of the hotel is a blissful spot to take a break from the hot Cuban sun. The hotel staff is friendly and helpful, but oftentimes slightly inefficient. Patience is an important virtue for any tourist in Cuba.

The hotel's swimming pool is large and multi-leveled with various small bridges criss-crossing the water. All bridges lead to the bar in the center; so, it is easy to find your way to a cold beer or cocktail. Bar maids are always close by to take orders for food or drink while guests luxuriate in the sun. If you prefer ocean swimming, a one minute walk takes you to the soft caressing waves of the Varadero. There are lounge chairs on the beach, although refreshments are unavailable. The water is a beautiful shade of turquoise. You can wade out about 30 yards before actually swimming. There are few waves, so it is an ideal place for children.

The hotel's restaurants are very good by Cuban standards, with plenty of fresh fish, chicken and meat. The food here is not complicated. A good rule when eating in Cuba is to order the simplest things on the menu. Stay with grilled fish or chicken and you will seldom be disappointed. Getting dressed for dinner at the Melia Varadero means an open-collar shirt and trousers for men. The main restaurant is the most popular but it is just as enjoyable relaxing in shorts at the grill restaurant next to the pool. The wine list is adequate in both restaurants with a few Spanish and French wines, but an ice cold beer, preferably the local brew called Hatuey, goes down best in the hot weather.

The rooms are comfortable. All have tiled floors, wicker furniture and large beds. The telephone system is efficient and a fax is available. Satellite television is available in every room. Prices are reasonable with a double room costing about $140 a night. The seven suites range from $240 to $300, and include a large bedroom, a separate living room and two bathrooms.

At the moment, most of the guests at the Melia Varadero are either Canadian or Spanish, although more Europeans are expected in the future. A few Americans stay each year, but they have to be rather enterprising to get there due to the restrictions on travel to Cuba from the United States. Most of the guests, like in other Varadero hotels, come on package tours, which cost as little as $400 or $500 a week from Canada. Most direct flights to Havana or Varadero from North America originate in Montreal, while Manchester, Paris and Madrid are the key gateway cities from Europe.

Hotel guests can sign up for day trips from the Varadero to Havana. The distance between the two cities is about 140 kilometers, but the travel time is about two hours each way due to the poor roads. Most people pass on the opportunity in lieu of the hotel's pool and beach. For a cigar lover, however, it would be a shame not to visit one of the cigar factories in Havana. But if the trip seems too difficult, guests won't be deprived because cigars are very afford- able at the hotel. Cohiba Lanceros and Coronas Especials can be purchased for about $5 each.

Varadero is a vital tourist center for the Cuban economy, and last year, it generated close to $1 00 million. A large proportion of the nearly 300,000 tourists who come to Cuba go to the Varadero. An 18-hole golf course, food and gift mail, and apartment complex are already under construction near the hotel.

There is something to be said about sitting next to a swimming pool, smoking a Cohiba and drinking a cold cerveza. Although the Melia Varadero may not be five-star quality on an international level, it makes a grand statement for tourists visiting Cuba.