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Cuba: Beyond Varadero



"He shoots, he scores!" NHL Alumni, 2, Cuba Cruise Crew, 1.

You don't expect to watch former hockey pros like Bernie Nicholls wielding a stick on the deck of your cruise ship, but Cuba Cruise isn't like any other cruise line I know. It combines the best of Cuba with some of the comforts of home in one memorable week.

Canada has long enjoyed a special friendship with this island nation, so it makes sense that a Canadian company has figured out how to take visitors beyond the beaches of Varadero.

From the political capital of Havana on the island's northwest to the rum-soaked capital of Santiago de Cuba in the southeast, we'll circumnavigate the island, stopping at six ports along the way, including one that had never seen a cruise ship until Cuba Cruise arrived last winter. And instead of spending just a few hours ashore, like many cruise itineraries, we'll spend entire days, giving us plenty of time to get lost — in a good way — on our own, or to join one of the array of interesting excursions on offer.

Soon after flying into Havana, I find myself sitting in the front seat of a bright pink 1953 Ford Victory, rooftop down, sea breeze blowing through my hair as we drive along the waterfront, past Revolution Square and into the city's historic old quarter.

The man in the driver's seat has a beautiful smile. Thirty-year-old Sergio Nieto tells me that he and two friends paid about $25,000 for the classic car, an impossible sum for Cubans, who earn about $46/month on average. "I have family outside," he explains, adding that his parents moved to Spain in the 1980s after the Soviet Union collapsed and life in Cuba became very hard.

The Ford's original engine was swapped for a diesel one long ago, and the exterior has been painted numerous times, but the pink interior is still the original, right down to the door handle that threatens to come off in my hand.

We leave the cars to stroll through the narrow streets of Old Havana. At Hotel Ambos Mundos, a wall of photographs attests to its most famous guest — Ernest Hemingway — who lived here in the 1930s. At nearby Hotel Conde de Villanueva, we watch cigars being rolled by hand while sipping sweet black coffee. That evening, a dozen of us put on our dancing shoes and head to a local nightclub for a tribute to the Buena Vista Social Club and the sounds of Cuban son.

If you think Havana is stuck in the mid-20th century, driving through the countryside of Holguin province in eastern Cuba is something else again. On our way to Fidel Castro's birthplace, we pass pairs of oxen plowing fields, horses pulling buggies filled with people or piled high with sugarcane, men in cowboy hats confidently riding their steeds. But when I see a man walking a pig on a lead along the roadside I'm flummoxed. "It's the cheapest way to feed a pig," explains my guide. "He eats the grass and sweet potatoes."

Arriving in the tiny town of Biran, it's a bit of a surprise to discover that Castro's father was a successful farmer and businessman, owning a hotel, bar, post-office, even a cock-fighting ring where people would gather to bet on Sunday afternoons; and that his mother was a devout Roman Catholic.

We tour their still-furnished, two-storey wooden farmhouse. We see the bassinet that cradled each of their seven children in turn, and wonder where the revered revolutionary is now. "A week ago Fidel was still alive. If he died, we don't know," says our guide, hinting at the continuing state control of information under his brother Raul's leadership.

Before coming here, it was hard to imagine Cuba without Castro creeping into the picture; the island and the man are so intertwined. But a day spent exploring the 16th century colonial buildings of Santiago de Cuba, or wandering the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Trinidad — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — puts things nicely into perspective.

By the time we sail into Cienfuegos, I've had my fill of both colonial and revolutionary history. Climbing into the back of an open-air truck, I'm ready to discover Cuba's wild side. We're heading into the Escambray Mountains to hike and swim at El Nicho Park.

For the first time all week, the heat and humidity dissipate. The jungle is pleasantly cool. And so is the water that gathers in turquoise pools at the base of several lovely waterfalls. "It's 18 degrees in winter," says our guide, joking that it's too cold for Cubans but not for Canadians. A few of us prove him right, slipping into the clear water and getting yet another view of Cuba, perhaps the best yet.