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Sit and soak in the sun on the beach

Truly, Varadero has one of the most gorgeous beaches around and there’s 22 km of it. Early mornings on the beach are glorious and deserted. The winds pick up in late afternoon and dusk isn’t just mojito – but mosquito – time.  So plan to visit the beach in the morning. And don’t forget to bring sunscreen, a hat and cover-up to avoid scorching. If you want to avoid the resort crowds, join the locals on the shores at Calle 50, or Calle 17 and Avenida de la Playa in town. These are gorgeous, tranquil beaches, save for a few stray chickens.

Explore undersea life scuba diving

Buseo (scuba) is excellent here. You can do low-level diving in Varadero to see virgin coral formations, or deep-sea for wreck diving. There’s a coral reef off the shore of Playa Coral with great shipwreck diving (and snorkelling), along with 30-plus other dive sites off Varadero. Most sites are a one-hour boat ride away, in Parque Marino Cayo Piedras del Norte. Popular dive spots include the Bay of Pigs south of Matanzas (three hours away) for exceptional cave diving and the coral reef at Cayo Coco. Dive operators include Barracuda Diving Centre and Marina Gaviota. The cost is around C$50 for one immersion, best done in spring for optimum conditions. Multiple dive packages provide you with the best value. Diving certification courses are offered at most resorts.

Go bird watching

Take a day trip out to Peninsula de Zapata, the Caribbean’s largest marshland/swamp area at nearly 5,000 sq. km. There are more than 350 species of birds in Cuba, including woodpeckers, parrots, wrens, flickers, flamingos, hawks, spoonbills, egrets and plovers. Twenty-one species are only found in Peninsula de Zapata, including the world’s tiniest zunzuncito hummingbird. Visitors will also get to see fish and crocodiles.

The bus ride to the park is two hours each way so be prepared for the commute. The best time of the year to go is during migration season in the spring.

Catch a really big fish

There’s excellent sport fishing in Varadero and you just might reel in the big one. To book a fishing excursion, talk to the pros at Marlin Marina Dársena, Marlin Marina Chapelín and Marina Gaviota. There is also fishing at Península de Zapata. A five hour trip for four people costs approximately C$315.

Make a splash with your favourite water sport

Varadero is a great place water sports. The only difficult part is choosing what to do. Snorkelling, sea kayaking, sailboarding, power boating, paddle boating – the options are endless. Non-motorized sports are usually free at the all-inclusive resorts.

Catamaraning to Cayo Blanco is also a great adventure. Or take a cave swim at Cueva Saturno near the airport – best during summer because the shaded waters can get chilly. Ask your WestJet Vacations representative for more recommendations.

Explore the area on a red bus

The Varadero Beach Tour double-decker red bus cruises up and down the Varadero peninsula and around town, halting every 25 minutes at well-marked stops. Its motto: “Hop on, hop off.” And it’s only C$5.25 for a day pass, ending around 8:30 p.m. The tour is a great way to get around and a fun way to get a handleon local geography.

Take a trip to Matanzas and discover the Caves of Bellamar

Located about a 45-minute drive outside of Varadero, the Caves of Bellamar (Cuevas de Bellamar) in Matanzas are the country’s longest caves and an interesting adventure. Originally on the Alcancía farm of Spaniard Don Manuel Santos Parga, the area is now a national monument. Over the years, rainwater has dissolved the calcium carbonate of the limestone, transforming the caves into unusually shaped crystal-filled chambers with giant stalagtites and stalagmites, mantles and columns. Some passages are as long as 24 km! Inside the caves, it looks like melting, sparkling snow and you can hear the dripping of water. It’s stuffy, slick, dim and footing is unstable – but the unique views are well worth it. If you’re claustrophobic or have trouble bending under low passageways, you should steer clear.

It’s C$5.25 to enter and C$5.25 to take pictures. Kids under five are free. The tour lasts about one hour and it’s best to go in the morning to avoid crowds.

Special flashlight tours of the “sponge room” (crystals formations resembling sponges) are available. There’s also an onsite restaurant, playground, bar and souvenir stand. While you’re in the area, spend some time in this authentic, hospitable, rustic city of poets and artists, nicknamed the Athens of Cuba. Matanzas has a bougainvillea-filled, lively main square called Parque de la Libertad and sees few tourists. It’s also the hub of the country’s pulsing Afro-Cuban music scene.

There are plenty of sights worth seeing in Matanzas, including Teatro Sauto, Palacio de Justica, Cafetería La Vigia (for snacks and drinks), art exhibits at Galeria La Vigia, a pharmaceutical museum, the cathedral, Iglesia San Pedro and the beautifully restored Ermita de Monserrate hilltop church. Now a cultural centre, it offers a bird’s eye view of the city. If you decide to stay the night, book a room at the historic Hotel Velasco. Partake in the nighttime revelry at Ruinas de Matasiete, a disco set in a 19th-century sugarcane warehouse ruin and a popular salsa, rumba and reggaeton spot.

Bay of Pigs museum

There is a fascinating museum in nearby Playa Girón on Bahía de Cochinos called Museo de Playa Girón. The site of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, you’ll find artifacts, battle vessels and aircraft, and a riveting mural of victims inside the museum. About two hours each way from Varadero, you can travel by bus or hire a driver for the day. Admission is C$2.10.

New Tobacco Route

If you’re a cigar aficionado, the new Tobacco Route debuting in May 2012 is for you. This self-guided (or tour package) circular route explores the culture of tobacco, visits a selection of tobacco farms, processing centres and factories, and adds personal interviews with the farmers. The route passes scenic fields of sugar cane, rice, banana trees and tobacco. There are also numerous signs with taglines such as “Las ideas justis son invincibles,” which translates to “Just ideas are invincible.”

Cathedral Habana

All-day adventures

Take the road less travelled and go beyond the hotel strip with these day trip ideas.

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Waterpark

Kids

For family-friendly ideas in Varadero, look no further.

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Mojito

Nightlife

If you've still got plenty of energy at the end of the day, these options will get you moving.

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Shopping

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While Cuba might have limited access to a wide variety of goods, there are some great buys to be had on rum, cigars and handmade items.

The cigar business is highly regulated and only certain places sell authentic cigars. Be sure to shop at reputable stores such as Casa del Habano, stores attached to a Havana cigar factory, La Casa del Tobaco stores or at the airport duty free shop, rather than street vendors.

For handicrafts, try the ARTex outdoor market at the pretty, flower-rimmed Gran Parque de la Artesanía at Calle 12.

Casa del Habano

In Varadero, head to Calle 31’s Casa del Habano cigar store at Avenida de la Playa. Rest assured you’re getting bona fide goods here. The staff is professional, helpful and most speak English. You can also enjoy a cigar on the terrace cafe with an ocean view. For quality goods, look for Montecristo No. 5 (25 cost around C$95), H. Upmann Magnum 46 (25 cost around C$177) or Punch Coronas (25 cost around C$130). Keep your receipt.

Casa del Ron

Conveniently, Casa del Ron is next door to Casa del Habano and a great place to go for rum. Try the Legendario Elixir. Or go to the La Casa del Habano store at Calle 31. The number on the bottle is the age of the youngest ingredient. The Selcción de Maestros reserve is nice to sip and costs approximately CUC$40.

Coffee

Cuban coffee is fragrant, smooth and delicious. A big bag for about C$4.20 makes a great gift and fits easily into a suitcase. Buy Café Serrano at Partagas cigar shop in Havana or at the grocery store in Habano Centro. In Varadero, you can buy it at the market in the Plaza Las Américas mall or at Centro Comercial Hicacos in town.

Jewelry: Artisans make lovely necklaces and bracelets out of seeds, pods, shells, wood and bone. The seed necklaces generally cost around C$5.25 for three. Buy at the market on Calle 12 or from a street vendor in town.

Dining

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Mansión Xanadú (Global/International, $$$$)

Now a hotel and restaurant (open to diners and guests), Xanadú was built in 1926 and was formerly the winter getaway of Irénée Du Pont, a munitions magnate. One of Varadero’s finest restaurants, Xanadú is set in a sumptuous, Spanish-style villa perched on a cliff above the ocean. Expect polished white-glove service and fancy fare.

If you’re craving Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce, you’ll find it here. Start with the octopus salad, then move on to the tender grilled veal sirloin medallions with pepper sauce. Make sure to finish with the apple torte. If you can’t do dinner, treat yourself to a cocktail on the fabulous second-floor terrace and watch the sun melt into the ocean. Or, listen to the piano music and the sound of waves and take in the beauty of the restaurant, including the marble floors, antiques, an organ, a huge wine cellar and Italian rococo bar. The mansion is adjacent to the Las Américas resort and Park Retiro Josone and is on the Varadero Golf Club’s property.

Make a reservation and dress up. If you have a chance, ask for a peek inside any of the eight boutique hotel rooms upstairs.

Restaurante Mesón del Quijote (Spanish, $$)

Everything comes together at Mesón del Quijote, a peaceful spot on a hill overlooking Varadero across from the Villa Cuba hotel. Just out front is a bronze statue of Don Quixote galloping toward what looks like a medieval castle turret, which in reality is a water tower. This restaurant has gracious, attentive service and a welcome patio breeze with views of the water. It also serves some of the best food in town – hearty and delicious comfort foods done right. Start with a Cuba Libre cocktail followed by a refreshing crab cocktail with mayo dressing. Add some Serrano ham. The star of the menu is the chef’s specialty, Judias Dulcineas. This hearty, tomato-based Spanish bean stew with chunks of pork, potatoes, peppers, onion, bacon and garlic is rich and savoury – and big enough to share. Order the caramelo flan for dessert.

Paladar el Chino (Chinese, $-$$)

This restaurant is one of only five paladares (privately owned, licenced restaurants in Cuban homes) in Varadero. Paladar el Chino serves up a tasty, well-priced menu of Cuban favourites (grilled fish fillet, shrimp cocktail, onion soup) and traditional Cantonese foods, which the owner learned to cook from his father (fried rice, stir-fry, Chinese-style chicken). His masa de cerdo estilo Cantón (pork stir-fry, Cantonese style) combines tender sliced pork, garlic, soy sauce, carrots, cucumber, celery and peppers. The dish (priced at C$4.75) is served with fried rice with ham and bean sprouts, bread, potatoes and white cabbage, tomato and cucumber salad. Spice added by request. The mixture is placed atop a glossy acelga leaf (a type of beet) with a tomato flower. Located in La Casa Morgan, an ornate 1917 Victorian-style house in cheery hues of blue, this is one authentic kitchen not to miss.

Restaurante Esquina Cuba (Caribbean, $$-$$$)

A spunky, fiesta setting and scrumptious comida criolla (Creole) food that is simple but tasty make Restaurante Esquina Cuba a surefire hit. Try the juicy cerdo asado (roasted pork) a la Criolla with rice and beans. The plantain chips and chicken are delicious too. Set in an open-air tiki hut space, there’s even a classic 1950s American red-and-white convertible in the dining room. What’s more, the musicians from Buena Vista Social Club used to hang out here. Have a look at the black-and-white photo collection at the back.

Cabaret Continental (International, $$$)

Rub elbows with Cubans at candlelit cabaret tables inside this red-velvet gilded ’50s retro theatre. The fixed menu includes smoked salmon, tomato soup, steak in red wine sauce and ice cream sponge cake. Try the signature minty mojito as well. If you’re going to catch the Tropicana-esque show at Hotel Varadero Internacional on Avenida las Américas, you’ll want to get there well before at 8 p.m. It’s C$42 for dinner and show.

FM-27 (Snack shop, $)

Sometimes, you just want a snack and this is a great place for it. Take a break under the red-and-white-striped canopy and join locals at this friendly spot for drinks or a light lunch. Snack on the Panini-style ham and cheese, plus cucumber, tomato and onion sandwich for just C$3 with a beverage. FM-27 also has burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, squeezed juices and cocktails. Order at the counter. There is a free cabaret show nightly at 9 p.m.

Heladería Hicacos and Helados Anlondra (Dessert, $)

There’s nothing like a cool, creamy helado (ice cream) in balmy Varadero. Join the crowd at the giant ice cream emporium, Heladería Hicacos. It is located in Centro Comercial Hicacos, near Parque de las 8000 Taquillas. Watch the little curled-tail lizards darting around while you lick your piña (pineapple), caramelo (toffee) or fresa (strawberry) cone.

Casa de la Cerveza (Havana) (Pub, $)

Share a giant bottle of house microbrew on the patio amidst graceful, honey-hued arches at communal tables. This is reputedly the best brew in the country. You’ll find this spot in Old Havana’s main square across from the planetarium. Make a stop at the nearby periscope for a panoramic view of the city.

Café del Oriente (Havana) (International, $$)

Splurge on rib chops, caviar, lobster, cheese and steak tartare with port at the famed Café del Oriente. This restaurant on Plaza de San Francisco de Asís is upscale and features mahogany finishes and a 1920s elegance.

Golf and spa

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Spa

The best spa in Varadero is probably the one at your resort. Most have pleasant spas on site with a Jacuzzi and sauna, reflexology, facials, hot stone massages, mud packs, manicures and pedicures. The couples’ treatments and full-body relaxation massages are popular and usually cost about C$52 to C$64 an hour.

Spa Hicacos ($)

If you want to spa like a local, visit the tiny, clinical Spa Hicacos at the Centro Comercial Hicacos. The staff here is friendly and the prices are good. Acupuncture is available for C$13 and a traditional full-body massage costs about C$42. The spa also does esthetics, including manicures (C$4) and pedicures (C$8.50). Make an appointment in advance.

Spa Club ($$)

Down the stairs from Plaza América shopping centre and adjacent to the hotel Meliá Las Américas, this centrally located spa is similar to spas back home. The most popular treatment is the package with a body massage, facial, reflexology, manicure, pedicure, exfoliation with honey or coffee and sauna. It’s 75 minutes in length and costs around C$65. Book ahead.

Golf

Varadero Campo de Golf The Varadero Campo de Golf is a resort-style 18-hole, par 72 course that is long and narrow and friendly to the average player. It sits on the former estate of the Dupont dynasty and just up from the clubhouse is the Mansíon Xanadú – a 1930 historic boutique hotel and home to Varadero’s finest restaurant. Other course features include a pro shop, electric carts, caddies, a restaurant and snack bar. This is the only 18-hole course in Cuba, and the first pro course in Varadero. It is also home to  a golf school. Green fees are C$74 for 18 holes or C$51 for 9 holes. You can rent clubs for C$53 and take a 50-minute lesson for C$32. There’s even the option to play 18 holes with a pro for C$190. Bring your own golf balls if you can. Green fees are waived for hotel guests.

Kids

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Experience authentic Cuba at Parque Retiro Josone (all ages)

Sample local culture with the kids at this lovely, landscaped park. If your kids want to relax, the pond near the centre of the park is a great place to spend an afternoon. Float past the flamingos and swans in one of the rowboats or paddle boats available for rent. You can stop to grab a bite to eat at one of the three restaurants in the park – including one with an outdoor patio overlooking the pond.

For a little more fun, there is also an amusement park, camel rides, ostriches and bikes for rent. Or just let the kids run around and release that extra energy.

The beautiful mansion in the middle of park was once the private home of the wealthy sugar mill owner who founded the park.  Locals come here to do photo shoots for teen girls’ fiestas de quinces, a rite of passage when young ladies turn 15.

Take a trip to the Delfinario (all ages)

Varadero is home to a dolphin show called the Delfinario, located across from the Blau Varadero hotel off the autopista (highway). Sit back and watch the leaping sea mammals perform. There are two shows a day: 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Purchase tickets in advance at your hotel for around C$10.

Spend the day making new friends at camp (all ages)

The day camps at the resorts are packed with activities, games, sports and shows for children and teens. There is usually a babysitter for little ones ages two and under (paid), a mini-club for youngsters two to six (free), a club for older children (free) and a youth club for the teens (free). Daily activities include beach games, volleyball, salsa and bingo. There’s usually a nightly themed show as well, popular with teens and tweens.

Snorkelling (age 7 and up)

The undersea world and coral reefs are alive with tropical fish such as red snapper and stingrays. The neon colours are fantastic. Most resorts offer free, low-key snorkelling in waters that are usually about three metres deep. Or head out in a catamaran, drop anchor and spend an hour peering down at the silver, neon-blue and orange fish below the water’s surface.

Learn to cha-cha-cha (age 10 and up)

“¡Vamos! One, two, cha-cha-cha!” You will hear this refrain daily at the resorts. Why not join in the fun? Learn some Cuban-style dancing for free from the comfort of your resort. The staff is enthusiastic, with a good sense of humour and most classes are for beginner’s salsa or cha-cha-cha. Check your resort activities board for schedules.

Head out on a catamaran adventure (age 10 and up)

Take the kids out on a full or half day catamaran tour. There are several different packages available – ask your hotel concierge for details. This is a great way to see a different part of Cuba without sitting on the bus. Some catamaran tours are paired with snorkelling once you’ve arrived at your destination.

Saddle up and head out on horseback (age 10 and up)

Take the family for a tour on horseback. Riding around 6 p.m. or later is ideal and not too hot. The horses are small and docile and the guides will pick you up (horses in tow) right from your hotel. A one hour tour costs about C$21.

Nightlife

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In Varadero, entertainment at all-inclusive resorts is plentiful, so it’s tempting to just stay put. But there are also many nightlife options in town should you wish to venture out a little further.

Cabaret Continental (Hotel Varadero Internacional) (Music venue, $$$)

This is hands down the best show in Varadero, second only to Havana’s Tropicana. The food here is also quite tasty and you’ll have plenty of time to order before the 10 p.m. show. After the show, 20-somethings swarm in for the disco around 11:30 p.m. Open Thursday to Sunday. The best nights are Thursday and Sunday. Try the signature minty mojito. A taxi from the resort area costs about C$16. It’s C$42 for dinner and the show.

The Tropicana (La Tropical) (Havana) (Music venue, $$$$)

If you get to Havana, be sure to see the famed La Tropical. They’ve been rolling out this high-energy show since the 1940s and the show is regularly included in Varadero-Havana day trip packages.

Cueva del Pirata (Music venue, $)

Not your average disco show, Cueva del Pirata is a swashbuckling cabaret of pirates that takes place in a natural cave. The show is hilarious and the setting is certainly unique. It’s not overly expensive either. This spot is open Monday through Saturday, 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. and guests must be over 18 years of age. Disco dancing follows the show.

Casa de la Música (Music venue, $$)

Locals prefer this place for disco, live bands and comedy routines. Occasionally, savvy tourists are lucky enough to stumble on this venue as well. It’s classy and fun. There’s a dress code, so leave the beach attire back at the hotel. Open Wednesday to Sunday.

Club Mambo (Music venue, $$)

Club Mambo is the place for a romantic evening. It has live Cuban music and couples quickly fill the dance floor swaying to the rhythm. The party begins at 10 p.m. nightly.

Ruinas de Matasiete (Matanzas) (Disco, $)

Matanzas is the home of Afro-Cuban music, and a must-see. Located on the San Juan River, Ruinas de Matasiete is set in a 19th-century sugar cane warehouse. It makes for a great setting for dances like salsa and rumba. The restaurant has Cuban sandwiches, roasted pork, jerked beef and fish fillets. Open Saturdays 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., this spot is popular among locals. In fact, you may be the only tourist there! Cover is C$2. Treat yourself to the immaculately restored Hotel Velasco nearby, if you decide to stay the night.

All-day adventures

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Even if you have to extend your stay in Varadero, try to make time for Havana. This beautiful city is one of Cuba’s finest and entices all the senses. When you have to leave, you’ll be longing to return for more.

Havana is a vibrant city well known for its many different styles of architecture. A colonial mansion, a Spanish castle and a 1970s apartment building might all be neighbours on a single block! Everywhere you look, building facades are being restored to their former glory.

The combination of old and new cars is another unique feature of the city. Beautifully maintained vintage American cars share the roads with Coco Taxis and Chinese imports.

There are more than 2 million people living in Havana, but the city never feels crowded.

Havana is a two-hour drive from Varadero and it’s best to hire a driver or try one of the daytrip resort packages. A good bargain is the full-day tour (departing around 7:45 a.m.) with the Tropicana show add-on, getting you back to your hotel room around 2:30 a.m. Or, stay overnight and get another half-day in this beautiful city.

Habana Vieja

Start with Habana Vieja

Old Havana. With its Parisian-like facades in pastels of peach, coral and butter-yellow, you’ll find yourself marveling at the unique cityscapes. Here, you’ll see laundry drying on ornate balconies and cobblestone streets.

Make sure to see all of Havana’s famous attractions, including the Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco de Asís and Catedral de San Cristobal (famous for its New Year’s Eve show). You’ll also want to check out the booksellers at Arms Square.

San Cristobal Agencia Receptiva/Habaguanex Tourist Co. offers walking tours and manages the restoration of the historic buildings. Cubatur leads half-day tours to the four oldest squares, plus museum visits and lunch.

Stroll the Malecón

Make like a local and walk along the seawall. You will see crashing waves to the left, dilapidated villas to the right and plenty of locals having fun everywhere in between. Watch kids playing in the waves, people fishing, men playing chess, lovers embracing and groups of teens telling jokes in Spanish. You’ll feel like you’re in a movie about Cuban life.

Habana Centro

Strangely enough, few tourists venture outside Habana Vieja. If you do, you get a taste of authentic Havana life. A man selling pork loins off of a makeshift counter in his living room, the tire repairman and cobbler, the ladies selling ice cream from their apartment for CUC 15 cents. It’s loud, crowded and always lively.

Browse the aisles at Supermercado Isla de Cuba grocery store (check your bags at the entrance and be prepared to be searched at the exit). Explore Chinatown. Meet local artists at the Callejón de Hamel each Saturday afternoon in front of Salvador Bueno’s African-inspired murals. There’s always an impromptu concert and dancing to Afro-Cuban music here.

Partagas

If you want to buy cigars (or coffee), go to the Partagas cigar shop. The staff here is knowledgeable and professional. If you don’t want to buy cigars, it’s still worth a visit. Check out the VIP smoking room (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gerard Depardieu and Whoopi Goldberg have all been here). And, if your interest is piqued, tour the Romeo & Julieta cigar factory next door.

Vedado District

See the mansions of the former gangsters, starlets and high-rollers. Then visit Avenida de los Presidentes for the best mansions in French neoclassical style with broad arches and sculpted pillars – many built with imported materials. Before you go, you’ll also want to stroll through the exclusive Miramar bourgeois district built in the 1940s and ’50s.

Museo del Ron

Even if you don’t take the Museum of Rum tour, buy some smooth-sipping Cuban rum here. Then you may feel up to the dancing lessons offered on-site.

Ernest Hemingway house

If you have time and are intrigued by famed author Ernest Hemingway’s love affair with Cuba, take the 20-minute trip to the outskirts in San Francisco de Paula in the southern part of Havana to see the modest villa where the writer lived out his troubled and tumultuous life.

Hemingway first stopped in Cuba on his way to Key West in 1928. Eleven years later, he took up residence and lived out the remainder of his life there. At the time, Hemmingway paid US$18,500 for his home and the 1.7 hectares on which it sits. See where the writer penned For Whom the Bell Tolls, view his fishing boat, Pilar, and the famous swimming pool where Ava Gardner once swam. The view of Havana is splendid from here. As for the furniture, Hemmingway and his wife designed most of it from mango tree wood.

Hemingway fans should also drop by Bodeguita del Medio (his favourite bar) and the Hotel Ambos Munchos (Hemmingway’s own hotel/bar).

The must-see sights

Don’t miss sights like the luxurious rooms inside the Capitolo, or taking a history lesson at the Museum of the Revolution. Take a bici, or Coco Taxi, the Cuban equivalent of a rickshaw, along Prado Avenue and stop by the National Theater at its end. Visit Parque Central. Then see the Inglaterra Hotel – one of the city’s oldest (circa 1875).

Havana at night

Havana is even more spectacular at night its plazas illuminated by gas lanterns. Pick a spot in Arms Square next to Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña, the largest castle in the Americas and the site where local hero Ché Guevara died. You can see the on-site cannon fire at 9 p.m.

The Tropicana show has also been a famous Havana attraction for decades. The show has run nightly since the 1940s and has always been a draw for tourists and locals. Try to get seats near the front so you can take in all the glitzy action.

Local feature

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Paladares are privately owned family restaurants run from home, and everyone – tourists and locals alike – is talking about them. It may come as a surprise to visitors that home businesses would be such a big deal, but in Cuba, nearly everything is owned and controlled by the government.

In 1995, the state revised its position to allow privately owned restaurants (and other small businesses such as artisan craft makers) to acquire licences to operate in many parts of Cuba. Those who could scrape the cash together jumped at the entrepreneurial opportunity.

The burgeoning paladar scene is flourishing, especially in places like Havana where cooking is undergoing a renaissance. Word on the street is these cozy, home dining rooms offer superior service, ambiance, creativity and excellent food quality. In fact, it may be that new Cuban cuisine is poised to emerge on the international scene, ready to overcome its poor image.

But Varadero is Cuba’s undisputed tourism centre and because of this, the government has been slow to relax control here. In January 2011, the small city of Varadero got the green light to allow its first paladares. By April 2011, five had opened their doors to the public.

Two of the newcomers are Paladar el Chino near Calle 28 and Avenida 1ra, and Rancho mi Gordy at Calle 6.

If you want to dine at a paladar, it’s best to ask around for the latest scoop. When walking through town, look for “paladar” on signs. It’s a great way to rub elbows with local entrepreneurs, hear their stories and support this budding restaurant business. It’s also a fun change of scenery to dine inside someone’s home.

Rolando Morgan decided to try opening a paladar with chef Rafael Pons. The partners purchased a licence and paid the necessary taxes, hired staff and crossed their fingers for good luck. They opened Paladar el Chino after three months of renovations. Dining is offered inside the elegant blue heritage home or al fresco on the wraparound porch overlooking Avenida 1ra passersby and the red double-decker buses on the road.

Morgan says it all came about when the government asked the people what they needed. The unanimous response was they wanted to own businesses.

“If you can finance it, you can do it,” says Morgan, who notes business has been slow to pick up so far. “But that’s the crux. We hope we can help the economy of our town, because we are leading the trend.”

The menu here is a mix of Cuban favourites (grilled fish fillet, shrimp cocktail, onion soup) and traditional Cantonese foods, which Pons was taught to cook by his father (fried rice, stir-fry, Chinese-style chicken). His masa de cerdo estilo Cantón (pork stir-fry, Cantonese-style), combines tender sliced pork, garlic, soy sauce, carrots, cucumber, celery and peppers. The dish is served with fried rice, ham, bean sprouts, bread, potatoes, white cabbage, tomato and cucumber salad. Spice is added by request. Delicious!

“The main thing is quality for our customers,” Pons says. “We want them to be satisfied. And we are so happy for the opportunity.”

Paladar el Chino is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Calendar of events

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New Year’s Eve (January 1)

Expect huge celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution on New Year’s Eve – one of the country’s most celebrated days. Join in the fun and festivities in Varadero and Havana.

Labour Day (May 1)

The first of May is Día del los trabajadores (Labour Day) and Cubans are out celebrating all day (and night). You’ll also find numerous parades in Varadero and Havana.

International Workers’ Day (May 16)

This is an important holiday for Cubans. Thousands show up to celebrate with a large parade in Havana and demonstrations at the Plaza de la Revolución José Martí. Cuban labour groups lead the parade, with representatives from the health and education sectors. Some 40,000 children also participate.

Varadero/Gregorio Fuentes White Marlin Fishing Tournament (June)

Named after Ernest Hemingway's fishing buddy, Gregorio Fuentes, this event is of special interest to deep-sea fishermen. While the big tournament is in Havana, Varadero’s own version is still pretty good. Cuba is a fisherman's paradise – and still relatively undiscovered by the global angler community. The best saltwater fishing is on the north coast, where giant catch might include marlin (blue and white), barracuda, tuna and sailfish.

Varadero/World Music Festival (June)

With live concerts, exhibitions and performances at more than 10 venues, this event draws artists from across Latin America. It features a mix of traditional and modern music, electric and acoustic in various musical genres. Trova, jazz, rumba and country music from Cuban and international performers – you’ll find it all at the World Music Festival. The festival attracts performers from places such as Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain and Africa.

Day of National Rebelliousness (July 26)

This festival, which takes place on July 26 annually, marks the commemoration of Fidel Castro’s first attack on the government in 1959. This is a multi-day holiday with plenty of parades in both Varadero and Havana. The festivities are perfect for families looking to soak up some local Cuban culture.

Carnaval de la Havana (August)

Let loose, Mardi Gras-style, at this late-summer fling filled with parades, street parties, dancing, stilt walkers, and wild costumes. Join the processions along the Malecón in Havana and get into a party mood.

Festival del Bailador (October)

This dance festival in Matanzas spotlights the rumba and the talents of local musicians. The action takes place at Teatro Sauto, a beautiful, historic theatre, famous for its stellar acoustics. It’s a great venue to see this mix of dance and music.

Jazz Festival (November)

Top talent from around the globe flock to Havana to celebrate and revel in jazz music (thanks to Cuban jazz great Chucho Valdés). The Jazz Festival features performances at the Mella, Karl Marx and Amadeo Roldán theatres and at Casa de las Américas. It has been a staple here for over 25 years.

Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano (December)

The International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana showcases Latin American cinema worldwide. It’s a globally renowned festival and the location reflects Cuba’s influence on the world of film.