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Her Cuba, Beautiful Cuba
Karen Dougherty

Picture a gentle over-lapping of plains and low, green mountains bordered on all sides by white sand beaches and a dark-sapphire, rolling ocean. Tall royal palms pepper the countryside. The rich land overflows with brilliantly coloured wildlife. The lovely island you've created in your mind is Cuba, at once breathtaking and tranquil, exciting and serene. This large Spanish-speaking Caribbean island is an interesting vacation spot for all kinds of travellers.

Relaxation comes easy...

If it's relaxation you're looking for, it comes easy at one of the many lush, inexpensive resorts that dot the coast. But the resort experience is just the tip of the iceberg. Bird lovers will swoon over the many gorgeous species -- tall white cranes, pink flamingoes, and funny-looking pelicans, to name a few. Automobile buffs will glory in the perfectly preserved classic American cars that sparkle on every street, untouched by harmful winters.

For those who enjoy sampling local fare, they will be disappointed by the plain, flavourless food but delighted by the exceptional beer and world-renowned rum. The "national" drink (and, incidentally, Ernest Hemingway's favourite) is the "Mohito." When I asked a waiter if it was pronounced "Mohito" or Mohita," he replied, "Oh, Mohito. He is man." And he's a man I like.

Old Havana is a jewel...

One of the first things most people will notice on the drive from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport is the fact that there is virtually no advertising - except for "The Revolution." Billboards with socialist slogans and paintings of revolutionaries like Che Guevara and, less often, Fidel Castro contribute to the overall cultural experience of a visit to Cuba. Slogans are always in Spanish but even a smattering of the language can help one translate such sentiments as "Socialisme o muerte!"

Many tourists landing in Havana head straight to a resort area like Varadero or the lovely Playa del Coco in the Keys, but they're missing out. Old Havana is a jewel of historic proportions, crumbling, weather-beaten, inhabited by families calling to each other across balconies. The buildings are of faded pastels made brighter by coloured laundry flapping in the brisk Atlantic winds. Children play with handmade toys in the streets and adults gather in squares to chat with each other, sell their wares, and listen to the music that is everywhere in this country.

Horse-drawn carriages are available in Havana for those wanting an old-fashioned tour of the cobble-stoned streets. Look for colonial churches and palaces, fascinating fortresses, and some of Ernest Hemingway's celebrated haunts (you can toast his memory at his favourite Mohito hangout, La Bodeguita del Medio near Havana Cathedral). Statues of revolutionary heroes on horseback punctuate almost every corner. The squares vibrate with history. And the souvenir shopping is better in Havana than in most beach resorts.

She heads out to the beach...

Once you have Havana under your belt, you may want to head out to the beach. Resorts in Cuba are plentiful and often offer the best range of foods, buffet-style. Their sandy beaches will attract even the most water-phobic tourist. But watch out for those high winds -- the sand can feel like bullets against tender skin. You'll want to bring a beach wrap and lots of sunscreen. For those who like the water, there are paddleboats and kayaks available for hire at most resorts, and you may also choose to go out on a catamaran guided by an experienced captain.

Golfing, anyone...

Other daytime leisure activities at resorts include deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, water aerobics, Cuban dance classes, and golf lessons at one of the island's two courses. The Las Americas Resort in Varadero is the island's only 18-hole course and is home to the former Dupont Mansion, now the "19th Hole" restaurant. Las Americas offers group clinics or individual lessons, and there are special women's tees for each hole.

Kids, hikes & bikes...

Many resorts make extra activities available for children however, to be sure, always check ahead to see what's on offer for the kiddies. As for hikers, you'll have to step off the resort to do any exploring. Most resorts rent small motorcycles per day and will provide maps of the surrounding area, but it's probably best for a woman to see if you can go with a group headed by a guide.

Dance, dance, dance...

In the evenings, look for homegrown entertainment. The larger resorts have big live bands, talented dance troupes, and sensational singers. The costumes are fantastic, sequin-covered, and very risque. And you'll be reminded again and again that Cuba is home to the rumba, the mambo, and the chachacha. You may even be invited on stage to participate! If, once the show is over, you want to continue dancing, there are always packed, American-style discos close at hand.

Dancing, shopping, Mohitos and more...

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